Floods, community resilience and the “civic middle”: learning lessons from Leeds

Image (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0) courtesy of Allan Harris / Flickr

Image (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0) courtesy of Allan Harris / Flickr

The floods that hit wide areas of the UK at the end of last year were devastating for many communities. In many places local crisis management was found wanting. But in Leeds, the spontaneously self-organised volunteering infrastructures were exemplary in their response. In a thorough and insightful assessment of Leeds’ post-flood response, written for the NewStart Magazine, a local councillor notes how “flood waters washed council bureaucracy away for a few weeks, helping volunteers and the state work together in partnership”.

Cities are increasingly subject to shocks, whether economic, social or climate. And these shocks bring in their wake assessments of resilience. What does Leeds’ response to the floods tell us about the city’s resilience? And what lessons can we learn for other parts of the UK and beyond?

The NewStart report argues that such assessments cannot solely focus on measures of local economic growth, but also policies such as community empowerment and participation, as well environmental sustainability. “Resilience at its essence”, the article notes, “is about recognising the inter-connectedness of a place and the importance within that place of connections and relationships, between the public, private and social sectors.”

The right kind of funding and the empowerment of the poorer parts of communities are vital to the task of establishing a “civic middle”. The example of Leeds showcases “the power of human capital and of local social networks when they unite around a common cause”. It demonstrates the function and need for “civic institutions that are of a parallel thickness to those of the state and big business – a strong local state but with social democracy behind it.”

The lessons from Leeds are clear, but government policy is heading in the opposite direction. While the government promotes community resilience in its rhetoric, austerity politics reduces available resources to support and enhance local civic institutions and infrastructure. And the areas that are hit most cruelly by these policies are the poorest: often the very neighbourhoods most vulnerable to shocks.

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