Three years on from the Covid crisis, David Powell and Duncan Shaw discuss ongoing efforts to make the UK a more resilient nation.
Is the UK today better protected against the threat of a future pandemic or, for that matter, a more dangerous Covid variant? Are we more insulated from the impact of climate change than we were? And are we better prepared for the huge societal impacts of rapid technological change, chronic stresses or future shocks?
As the immediate Covid crisis fades into the collective memory, now seems a very opportune time to be asking these questions. The pandemic has naturally highlighted the need for a new strategic approach to strengthen resilience, and there has been a resulting flurry of activity in Whitehall.
Indeed, as well as the recently published National Resilience Framework (NRF) we have seen the creation of a new Resilience Directorate set up in the Cabinet Office. This aims to build on the National Security Risk Assessment which considered the chronic vulnerabilities and challenges that arise from geopolitical and geo-economic shifts.
Looking to local, listening to national
These are just some of the searching questions that will be at the fore at a conference hosted by the National Consortium for Societal Resilience (NCSR+) later this month here at The University of Manchester.
The Consortium, which was founded last year, brings together partners from policy and practice across the UK to share insights, learn together, hear about inspiring work, and identify opportunities on how to enhance societal resilience.
Our driving goals are to enhance the UK whole of society approach to resilience so that individuals, community groups, businesses and organisations can all play a meaningful part in building the resilience of society and providing local capabilities that can work alongside or complement official response and recovery efforts during disasters.
The consortium also actively influences the national conversation on societal resilience, helping effective delivery of national and sub-national offers at the local level.
Critics might well argue, with some justification, that setting up these new structures is all well and good, but very little if anything has changed on the ground. Whole of society resilience appears to be an ambition and aspiration with limited detail on how to actually achieve it.
Indeed, some perceive these efforts at national government level as simply shifting responsibility for resilience to other government tiers, communities and individuals without any extra resource and ignoring budget cuts elsewhere.
Another challenge with this debate is actually a simpler one, namely that a common definition of whole of society resilience is currently lacking. This gives rise to potentially divergent interpretations of its meaning in policy and practice.
Opening up resilience
We welcome the ambitions in the NRF to broaden the focus, and to open up resilience beyond an often-narrow interpretation of working with easy to access communities and the established voluntary sector. It also marks a more supportive shift in the relationship between ‘official’ responses and affected communities as valuable resources (working alongside, or complementing response and recovery efforts).
A ‘whole society’ approach seeks to align a broader range of agendas, not least ‘levelling up’ but also climate change, economy, health and wellbeing, public safety and cohesion. It also requires local place-based, strategic and political leadership.
Covid recovery demonstrates that agreement and local strategy setting can be challenging for Local Resilience Forums (LRFs) at the moment. LRFs – multi-agency partnerships made up of representatives from local public services - tend to be, by nature, transactional and ‘occasional’ partnerships, over-reliant on willing partners, and with an explicit focus on response.
We question whether the national imperative for societal resilience is yet mirrored at local delivery level, but observe the aspiration in the NRF to ‘strengthen leadership, accountability and integration’ with great interest. We hope that central to this will be a more strategic approach to innovation, and longer-term funding for resilience.
How the Consortium can help
So, a central question remains over who precisely should deliver resilience. Everyone agrees it needs to be at the heart of decision-making and investment. But who exactly makes those decisions, and who makes those investments?
The answer is surely that resilience is ultimately a local issue, and this is precisely where the Consortium can help bridge the gap, looking to local but listening to national, helping to ensure effective delivery of national offers at the local level. In this context understanding the local delivery of national ambition and policy is key, and this is precisely where we believe the Consortium can directly help address some of these challenges.
Resilience has to be a whole of society endeavour which is precisely why we have brought together so many different partners from across local government, business and the voluntary sector to debate these issues. Do join us if you can and join in the conversation.