Snow, flood, fire. They are the obvious emergencies that have and could occur again in Ludlow. There is the unexpected too. A coach or rail crash. A bridge demolished. There are also the things we tend not to think about. A flu pandemic. A shutdown of the countryside due to disease in livestock. Disruption of food supply chains. Loss of power.
The whole point of emergency planning, contingency planning, call it what you will, is that we must be prepared for routine events and exceptional events. That means local preparation as well as working alongside the blue light services and Shropshire Council.
In a rural location like ours, we must not become overdependent on resources based a long way away. They may be tied up with emergencies elsewhere and, in any event, they will will take some time to get here. That’s why we need to plan for what we can do as a small rural community.
My ideas have been shaped by spending Thursday in a “political leadership masterclass” – that’s a workshop to you and me. The event was organised by the Local Government Association and hosted by the West Midlands Fire Service at their Duddeston HQ. It brought together councillors from across the country who need to respond to unexpected events in their roles as civic leaders. We heard from councillors directly responding to the terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena and those dealing with the aftermath of the Grenfell fire.
The very nature of local councils is that they are more focused on the routine not the exceptional. We councillors in Shropshire, whether unitary, town or parish, spend our time in committee debates on policies, spending, planning applications and the rest. We tend not to give enough thought to how we would respond to a disruption or emergency.
I want to take you through a “two feet of snow for two weeks” scenario (2×2 snow).
In Ludlow, we are a community that is quite a way from major emergency resources. West Mercia Police plan to keep a minimum of one police officer at Ludlow 24×7. But the police officers may need to go out to incidents at Cleobury Mortimer or Bishop’s Castle, so they are not always on the spot. We have a 24×7 paramedic but ambulances usually come from Hereford or Shrewsbury. We have a great local fire team but when they are stretched to the limit, it will take a while to get additional crews to the town.
Geography – distance – is hugely important in the life of our town, every day. It becomes more important when our one rail line is out of action and our one major road is blocked. We don’t get as cut off as communities in mid-Wales or Cumbria but our geographical location makes our town more vulnerable.
In early March, the supermarkets ran out of fresh items the snow fell and struggled to restock. No one went hungry but this was only a three day snow event. It demonstrated that the supply lines to the stores are fragile. The market was shut by the town council for four days (plus the usual Tuesday closure). It formally reopened on the Wednesday but some stallholders pitched up on the Monday anxious to trade and serve.
This pattern of disruption means that in a much bigger 2×2 snow event, some households will run out of food.
Others will run out of medication. In March, as in last December, the GP surgeries and hospital remained open for emergency appointments. The pharmacies were also open but they are reliant on daily deliveries of medicines. These will be threatened if roads are blocked.
Shropshire Council is the lead authority for emergencies in the unitary area. It has a hard working Emergency Planning Unit and a suite of emergency plans. But in a countywide event, flooding or snow, its limited resources will be stretched, as will those of the blue light services. In a 2×2 snow event, it may not be possible to reach Ludlow for days.
Although most schools will close during a weather emergency, Shropshire Council will not. Each essential council service has a tested business continuity plan for emergencies and severe weather. Key staff can also operate home.
But the unitary council won’t shop for people, ferry them to the GP or pick up prescriptions. It won’t get businesses and retailers back in operation. Neither will it promote a “Ludlow is Open” message after a disruption. That’s down to communities, businesses, councillors and neighbours.
We need to be prepared as a community for disruptive events. Work is already underway with the town council and community groups, advised by Shropshire Council, to develop a community emergency plan for Ludlow. We need to work out what preparations we need to make, including identifying key people, communication channels and community groups that can provide different types of support.
Our responses as a community to a severe event will be especially important during the first hours of an emergency. This might be as simple as making cups of tea or the owners of 4×4 vehicles ferrying people and essential services around.
We also need to think about recovery from any disruptive event. We have struggled in the past with, for example, the Ludford Bridge closure, to get the message out that “Ludlow is Open”. We need a plan for this, as well as developing an awareness of what support people might need in a more severe event.
Ludlow Town Council will be discussing emergency planning on Monday 19 March at 7pm in the Guildhall. I hope that the council will agree to support the efforts that town and county councillors, council officers and volunteers are making to ensure we are prepared for the worst.
And I very much hope, once we have plans in place, we will never need them!
. Shropshire Council is a “Category 1” responder in emergencies. Under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, it has “statutory duty to maintain plans for the purpose of ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, that if an emergency occurs the person or body is able to continue to perform his or its functions.” Town and parish councils are not covered by the Act but many have a business continuity plan in place as a matter of best practice.
. I don’t know how many Ludlow businesses have a business continuity plan. Business in the Community has produced a template for a basic plan that takes just ten minutes to complete. The Cabinet Office has issued a two-page Bitesize Dummies Guide to Business Continuity. Many other resources are available.