Volume 18 Issue 2, 2003

Order out of chaos? A critical review of the role of central, regional, and local Government in emergency planning in London

Sarah Norman, Eve Coles

Peer-reviewed Article

Archived Article


The events in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, (9/11) apparently represented a fundamental shift in opinion towards emergency management, presenting a unique opportunity to promote change in England and Wales through heightened awareness of the need for emergency planning. The awareness afforded by 9/11 and the proposed changes in legislation recommended by the most recent review of emergency planning in the United Kingdom (U.K.) presented a unique opportunity for government to put its ‘emergency planning house’ in order. The review, initiated after the flooding and fuel crises of 2000 and given further impetus by the foot-and-mouth crisis, stated that: “The need for effective partnership working across organisational boundaries is a major requirement for emergency planning in the future” (Cabinet Office 2001, p. 8). As the last of a number of reviews over the past eleven years, this review seemed to offer the opportunity of a bright future for emergency planning by providing comprehensive legislation, the restructuring of emergency planning, and the hope of increasing public awareness of the role of emergency managers. Unfortunately, it is our contention that much of the impetus generated by events of the past two years has slowly disappeared as the recommendations of the review have been buried in the bureaucracy of the civil service administration known in the U.K. as ‘Whitehall.’ A distinct lack of research from a British perspective is evident, and yet the organisation of emergency planning in the U.K. is a crucial issue. As yet another review is relegated to the ‘slow waltz’ of Whitehall, the question must be asked whether the role and importance of issues such as legislation, structure, communication, and coordination will continue to be shrouded in secrecy, hampered by the continued mismatch of policies that successive governments have introduced and low public interest, all of which is demonstrated by the last fifty years of the British civil defence system. This paper will focus on the recent development of emergency planning in the U.K., the current situation following the latest review, and how the structures that exist between the Greater London Boroughs and Central Government have reacted in responding to an event of equal magnitude to 9/11. It must also be noted at this stage that disasters are complex events, and the definitional debate that surrounds them is equally complex (see, for example, Quarantelli 1998). In the U.K., such events are more commonly referred to by emergency services and response organisations as a ‘major incident’ (Home Office 1997, p. 1). Similarly, the term ‘emergency management’ (Lindell and Perry 1992, p. 2) is not one in regular use in the U.K. More commonly the term ‘Emergency Planning’ is used for this varied and responsibility-laden job, which in our opinion does not always reflect the responsibilities and scope of this ‘profession.’ Another point of clarification needed here is the perceived difference (in the U.K.) between civil defence and peacetime emergency planning. Civil defence is the protection of the civil population in the event of a hostile attack by a foreign power. Peacetime emergency planning is seen as planning for the response to a major accident or emergency that may occur as a result of explosion, train crash, building collapse, or the like. In the U.K., planning for civil defence at the local level is compulsory and has been governed by an act of Parliament since 1948. Yet despite the plethora of disasters since the 1980s, peacetime emergency planning is not yet compulsory, although a new act of Parliament is currently being drawn up. Emergency planning in the U.K. is carried out at the local government level; there is no government agency that undertakes such activities. Thus, in order to understand how it works it is necessary to understand firstly the structure of local government in England and Wales and secondly the development of the legislation controlling emergency planning.