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New post-disaster powers 'may be needed'

11 Dec 2007

The UK may need new emergency powers to manage the huge and conflicting demands for limited resources after large natural disasters or terrorist attacks, according a senior researcher at The University of Manchester.

The comment comes from Professor Stephen Wearne from The School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering (MACE), writing in the latest issue of the Institution of Civil Engineers journal Municipal Engineer.

Prof Wearne, a senior research fellow in the Management of Projects research group, writes that flooding and fuel crises in 2000 and the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001 exposed deficiencies in the UK's ability to predict, prevent and handle large or unexpected civil emergencies.

He notes that, for example, after the severe flooding in Boscastle in 2004, logistical problems were created by the independent employment of many separate contractors to remove rubbish and dirt.

Prof Wearne says that the government's Civil Contingency Programme and also the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 are designed to establish a single national, regional and local framework for planning and coordinating the response for all civil emergencies.

But Prof Wearne says that although government guidance recommends the formation of a Recovery Working Group (RWG) during emergencies, such a body is limited to providing consultation.

In the period after the recovery of casualties in the emergency response phase, authorities are "without the statutory power to direct the use of resources if there are conflicts that cannot be resolved by discussion", writes Prof Wearne.

"Consensus is preferable, but achieving this immediately after widespread disruption and severe human, physical, environmental, social and economic loss might be beyond government influence and its existing statutory powers.

"The statutory authorities do not have powers to command the use of others' resources after they have taken over the area from the police after the emergency.

"For recovery from widespread damage, emergency legislation might therefore be needed to establish a 'recovery programme director' with temporary power to control the use of all public and private resources of local authorities, businesses and other stakeholders.

Prof Wearne writes that the Civil Contingencies Act allows the making of temporary regulations aimed at dealing with a serious emergency - but he notes they are intended only as a temporary last-resort option and believes central government "could and should be reluctant to grant emergency powers".

In conclusion, Prof Wearne writes that after an extreme event "a single temporary authority might be needed to impose recovery priorities".

"Furthermore, such work by private and public asset owners and users could be subject to temporary statutory control of resources, regardless of their ownership or normal commitments."

Notes for editors

Prof Wearne is available for comment.

The journal Municipal Engineer is published by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).

The article 'Managing recovery after widespread damage' by Professor Wearne is published online at http://www.thomastelford.com/journals/JournalContents.asp?JournalTitle=Proceedings%20of%20ICE,%20Municipal%20Engineer&JournalID=6&JournalMenu=true&OriginalTitle=Municipal%20Engineer

For more information please contact Alex Waddington, Media Relations Officer, The University of Manchester, Tel 0161 275 8387, email alex.waddington@manchester.ac.uk .

The School of MACE is part of The Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences (EPS). For more information please see www.manchester.ac.uk/eps