England & Wales, Scotland Communities and society, Personal and organisational development

So, how can local government and the voluntary and community sector work better together?

Image: David Severn / British Red Cross

From flooding in Yorkshire, to fires in Bolton and Leicester, the past few weeks have highlighted the incredible resilience of communities hit by crisis. At the forefront has been the importance of partnership between local people and all those involved in responding, to help them return to safety and start to rebuild their lives.

Despite days of continuous rain, voluntary and community groups and members of the public across the Midlands and North of England have worked side by side with local authorities, emergency services, the Environment Agency and the British Red Cross, to respond to the incredibly difficult events unfolding around them. Reaching out to vulnerable people, creating welcoming spaces for all those affected and working tirelessly to overcome the practical challenges presented by extreme weather, communities have been at the heart of the emergency response.

Yet even the slickest emergency procedures cannot always address the individual and sometimes unpredictable needs of people. This is where the voluntary and community sector comes into its own. The voluntary sector has an abundance of skills, knowledge and insights to communicate, provide and advocate. Not only do we complement statutory agencies and help them to tailor their response better, we increase their capacity to respond overall. By working with local and national bodies responsible for crisis response, we can ensure that people are able to shape the support they need to help recover when crisis strikes.

The recent British Red Cross report, People Power in Emergencies: An assessment of voluntary and community sector engagement and human-centred approaches to emergency planning, explores this partnership, highlighting where it works well. We also make recommendations for how all of us involved in crisis response can work more closely together to ensure communities placed at the heart of emergency planning.

We found that local resilience forums, which coordinate local emergency preparedness, response and recovery, typically only engaged with voluntary sector organisations that have experience of emergency response work. This means that they may miss out on working with the local businesses with the space and willingness to help, to the schools, libraries and others which provide natural ‘community hubs’ where information can be shared and advice given.

We know that a joined-up and effective crisis response depends on clear lines of communication and engagement between everyone involved, so that, when crisis strikes, accurate information can be shared quickly. Yet we’ve found that systems and processes haven’t always adapted to changing times and new communication channels. Too often, the excellent work that local resilience forums undertake was not shared widely enough with local voluntary organisations: 92 per cent of local voluntary sector organisations we surveyed were not aware of their local resilience forum’s plans and most were not widely accessible online.

So, how can local government and the voluntary and community sector work better together?

  • The British Red Cross has a produced a Voluntary and Community Sector Checklist’. We encourage all local resilience forums to put the Checklist on their agenda for the next meeting: a 10-minute discussion might be all that’s needed to highlight simple, practical ways voluntary organisations could support local emergency planning and response.
  • The new Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership brings together voluntary and statutory agencies and is co-chaired by the British Red Cross and the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (NAVCA). We want to hear from you how we can support closer working between statutory and voluntary sector organisations at a local level, whether this is through guidance, networking events or sharing best practice. Get in touch here.
  • Finally, local action is necessary, but the national legislative framework must support all the effort and hard work at a local level. The British Red Cross is calling on the next Government undertake a review of the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act to enshrine in law the role of the voluntary and community sector in emergencies, to give individuals and communities more say in how they are treated and the support they get in an emergency.

We can never always know when the next emergency can strike, or what impact it will have on people and communities– yet by involving individuals, communities and the voluntary sector you can guarantee an approach to emergencies which is dynamic, inclusive and human-centred.

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