PCC Blog 111

After the floods, the fire.

It was only in November 2019 that we witnessed widespread flooding across parts of South Yorkshire, principally around Doncaster. I remember being taken to see the devastation in a Fire and Rescue Service jeep and gazing out over vast expanses of water, as far as the eye could see.

I visited the village of Fishlake, which was all but cut off, and where the church had been turned into a food store. We talked to the church wardens. There had been days of heavy rain and the fields were saturated. Everything was very cold and very wet. The meteorologists told us to expect more in the future.

If an excess of water was the problem then, lack of it was the issue last week as whole swaths of the country were rendered so dry that they became like a tinder box. Then the fires started and one of the places most affected was South Yorkshire. The meteorologists told us to expect more in the future.

In one day South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service (SYFRS) received over 2,000 calls for service and responded to 228 incidents. As fast as operational crews dealt with one fire they were sent to another. This continued all day and into the night, and for some fire fighters it meant still being there the following morning as well. The police were similarly stretched and declared it a major incident.

Is climate change really happening? This no longer seems like an academic question, or the sort of thing they might debate in a students’ union. We are all climate change believers now. The only question is, will there be flood or fire or both?

Whatever the answer, there will be implications for the emergency services as we think about the lessons we must now learn.

I was very struck by some remarks made by Dave Walton, the Deputy Chief Fire Officer for West Yorkshire, about his area, though they could just as easily be said here. He was interviewed by Channel 4 News in Leeds. Three things in particular lodged in my mind.

First, he pointed out that this was very different from previous fires caused by excessive heat. In Yorkshire we are prepared for moorland fires and fires in rural areas and know how they have to be tackled. But these fires may have begun in a field or along a railway embankment, but they quickly spread to residential areas. We know too what the most likely causes of some of the moorland fires are – barbecues, discarded cigarettes, broken glass, and so on – and we can ask the public to take precautions. The causes of these fires may be the same or they may not, and because fire crews were so busy going from one blaze to another it may not be so easy determining all the causes. Someone suggested, for example, that compost heaps were catching fire because of the gases they generate. And the heat transferred so rapidly from ground to grass to buildings – with flames travelling as fast as people could run.

Then second, Dave Walton suggested that if we are to see more days like this in the future, the way the emergency services plan for that future is going to have to change. What does policing and fire fighting look like if there are multiple incidents in residential as well as rural settings all at the same time? Our ever-adaptive emergency services need different kinds of scenario planning. And that planning will affect people like call handlers as much as fire crews or frontline police officers. They had to decide what to do with call after call after call when all available fire tenders, fire officers and police were already committed.

And that takes me to the third and very telling point the Deputy Chief Fire Officer made just as the interview was being concluded. He was asked how the emergency services were to match resources to demand in future when demand looked like this. He said they couldn’t. That was impossible because demand was so high. There was no way Fire and Rescue or any of the other services would have the level of resources you would need to respond to everything that was happening that day.  They could only match resources to risk not demand. Call handlers, managers and the police were having to make quick judgements as incidents were assessed and triaged. That sometimes meant that a fire would not be attended if there was no immediate danger to life or property. It sometimes meant that a fire – which might be property – had to be allowed to burn as long as it was contained.

These are the simple truths. Skills and resources will have to be matched to risk not demand. This is not wholly new, but last Tuesday suddenly gave all this a much sharper dimension and focus.

Getting up to speed

 By chance I found myself in Doncaster last week talking to someone who works for one of the city’s big new car dealers. I asked how sales were doing and she told me that people were buying cars again. But when I asked about hybrid and electric vehicles she said not. People were very hesitant about that.

Given what we have just witnessed with high temperatures and all that followed, this was not good news. Transport is the biggest problem when it comes to harmful emissions with roads leading the way.

The sales of petrol vehicles ends in 2030 and hybrids follow in 2035. This is not far away! But this year, nationally, if not in Doncaster, electric car sales (not including hybrids) will probably account for no more than one sixth of all cars sold.

The reasons are not hard to see. Electric vehicles might save money on running costs, but not enough to outweigh the initial purchase price. And government seems unsure what it wants, sending mixed signals: it scrapped the £1500 grant towards them earlier this year. Local authorities need to think about plug-in charging points not only in town centres but also in those inner suburbs where everyone parks on the street: you can’t have cables running out of front windows and across pavements at every terraced house.

The remedies are also not hard to see. The cost of buying new cars must be brought down so that a new electric car is less than the equivalent petrol model. This could be done now by a mix of policies: tax changes, subsidies – but also making car parking cheaper for electric cars. Above all, we need a sense of urgency that is currently just not there.

(As I left Doncaster I saw a couple of signs saying ‘Town Centre’. Memo to Mayor: ‘Need to change them to ‘City Centre’ asap.)

Future proofing

In the 1970s I left the East Midlands and came to live in Sheffield. A large part of the reason for that was because I had become tired of the racist sentiments openly expressed by most of my fellow councillors, from all parties, on Leicester City Council at that time. I wanted to move to a place that, rightly or wrongly, I thought was less racist. The council in Leicester had been debating the imminent arrival of Asian refugees from Uganda, forced out by Idi Amin’s brutal policy of ‘Africanisation’. They were determined to do everything they could to keep the refugees out of the city and when six colleagues and I spoke against this and said we had a moral obligation to do what we could to help, we had the party whip withdrawn. I received death threats and, having a small child, eventually decided to move. The atmosphere in Leicester was deeply racist and unpleasant. What a contrast with the city today!

If you had asked me in those days – not long after Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech – whether I thought a contender for the leadership of the governing party nationally, and to be our next Prime Minister, would be from an ethnic minority, I would have found the idea unbelievable. (Mind you, I would have found the idea that it might be a woman and a Conservative equally unbelievable!) But here we are.

I thought of these things as I listened to some of those speaking at the launch of the Race Equality Commission review in Sheffield the other week. You would have thought that the racism I knew in the 1970s had persisted and no progress had been made at all. In fact, the efforts of many over the years have born fruit, even if, as ever, there is more to do.

Sometimes we are so focussed on some problem that lies immediately in front of us, and seems so intractable, that we miss the patient work that has been going on elsewhere. I was reminded of a verse from Arthur Hugh Clough’s poem, Say not the Struggle nought Availeth, which I don’t suppose anyone reads any more:

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking

      Seem here no painful inch to gain,

Far back through creeks and inlets making,

      Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

This too is lived experience.

Stay safe and well.