THE MASSIVE oil spill from the Braer tanker on to the shores of the Shetland Islands has focused attention on the need for local authorities to plan ahead for handling disasters. There is agreement between local and central government that peacetime disaster planning is an important function of local authorities. Yet a few years ago it was a subject full of conflict. The Government appeared to favour civil defence over peacetime emergency planning, and some Labour and Liberal councils declared themselves 'nuclear-free zones' and refused to co-operate.

Times have changed. The fall of the Soviet Union and the ending of the Warsaw Pact have led to less emphasis on the civil defence aspect of emergency planning. Meanwhile major disasters such as Lockerbie have led the Government to recognise the necessity of a broader framework for emergency planning.

A review into emergency planning, conducted for the Home Office by former Air Vice-Marshal David Brook, concluded in 1991 that councils should have a statutory responsibility to plan and train for dealing with peacetime emergencies. Brook also found that in many of the major English metropolitan areas, the level of disaster planning was weak, with poor co-ordination between neighbouring authorities, and between councils and the emergency services.

The Government has said that it is not intending to put these proposals into law until local government reorganisation is dealt with. In the meantime, civil defence grant will be withheld from any authority 'which is inefficient in its use of grant or seeks to evade its civil defence responsibilities'.

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities (AMA) has welcomed the prospect for the statutory clarification of the emergency planning duty, but is concerned that it will be expected to do more without extra resources. Representatives from the AMA met the Home Office minister Lord Ferrers this week to discuss the proposed cut in civil defence grant, running in the current year at pounds 22m, to be reduced to pounds 15m by 1995 / 6.

Philip Michaelson, under-secretary at the AMA, complained that authorities' good intentions were being exploited. 'The Government is trying to twist peacetime planning into wartime planning, saying to authorities that you can do this peacetime planning providing you do it within the double remit (of peacetime and wartime planning).' The Government has said that it is no longer necessary for local authorities to have as many 'protected emergency centres' - nuclear bunkers, in simple language. Where each county has previously been required to have two, and each district one, the requirement has been relaxed to just one per county. Among other things being brought to an end are the national network of warning sirens and the wartime radio network. It has also been decided to stand down the Royal Observer Corps - volunteers who had responsibility for monitoring details of nuclear burst and radioactive fallout.

The move towards emphasising peacetime disasters will not greatly affect the operations of the Emergency Planning College (formerly the Civil Defence College) at Easingwold in North Yorkshire, where council officials and members undergo training. A Home Office spokeswoman explained: 'They will slightly change the emphasis of their courses, but there are no major implications. There is a move towards a more flexible and integrated approach to emergency planning, which they are reflecting.'

The Shetland oil spillage has demonstrated the value of having disaster systems and plans that are known to work. Malcolm Green, Shetland's chief executive, said: 'An emergency plan is essential - without it it would have been absolute chaos. It's not just emergency planning that's needed but forward planning, things like training. It worked very well, but things need to change; nothing of serious significance, but at the margins. The plan had been tested and it worked. We are still de-briefing over it. There were issues like security, and the need to develop a network of centres, like the one we occupied at the airport. In a way it was lucky it happened where it did, next to the airport. If it had happened anywhere else we would have been in trouble, and there was a massive press presence. There was some confusion about who was dealing with the press. The emergency services worked very well together.'

Shetland knew that an oil spill was a possibility, and could specifically plan for that, but in Mr Green's view all councils must recognise the possibility of disaster striking. 'It is the case that odds were high that an oil spill was likely. The type of disaster may differ but an air crash could happen anywhere, any time.'

Four years ago a plane flying from the East Midlands airport to Ireland, crashed on take-off on to the M1. The police co-ordinated the response, which involved both the district and county councils. Leicestershire County Council's emergency planning officer, Keith Beckwith, said they had learnt from the experience. 'One of the first lessons from both Kegworth and Lockerbie was the need for flexibility. While you may have paper plans they really don't set the scene for how you respond at the time, things are always different from what you expect. What Kegworth did show was, on the social services aspect, the need for support for meeters and greeters receiving planes from Ireland with the relations on board. We've been working on this since. We already had good relationships with the emergency services, and since then we've been running an emergency planning liaison group, which contains representatives of the emergency services and the county emergency planners.'

The dual responsibility of district and county councils for emergency planning can hinder the effective preparation and implementation of plans. Mr Beckwith commented: 'We've worked very closely with district councils on plans. It can work, OK it might be easier if there were just one tier. In Leicestershire only one district has a specified emergency planning officer, the others tag it on to other officer duties.' This problem can be made more difficult when the district has a poor relationship with the local police, or other emergency services. Some councils are not aware of the details of the separate emergency plans held by the police, but suspect the two to be in conflict.

Emergency planning is too important to be a matter of dispute or confusion, whether it is between the emergency services and councils, between neighbouring authorities, or between the two tiers of councils, where these still exist. Those disagreements also act as strong arguments in favour of unitary, strategic authorities.

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