18 May 2023

What the ‘Muckle Spate’ can teach us about resilience in policymaking

By Loic Menzies

Nobody likes waste. The problem is, sometimes you don’t know the value of something until you need it. For years, the NHS sought to trim the fat, priding itself on running at 95%, until the pandemic pushed the system into a crisis from which it has yet to recover.

A new report published today argues that in order to rewire society for resilience, we need to get better at distinguishing between genuine waste and investment for the future that goes beyond bricks and mortar.

Looking back to the Nineteenth Century, Professor Christopher Hood, the man who first coined the term ‘quango,’ tells a cautionary tale to illustrate why, in engineering, as in policy, sometimes waste isn’t waste.

Thomas Telford infuriated builders and funders alike when he decided at the last minute that the abutments of the Craigellachie bridge in Scotland should be four metres higher than originally planned – blowing budgets and timelines in the process. However, 15 years later disaster struck. Unprecedented downpours flooded into the River Dee, downstream from the Spey, causing the ‘Muckle Spate’ which raised the river level by nearly five metres.

The resulting floods swept away all the bridges on the Spey – except for Telford’s.

Nowadays, engineers routinely design for resilience, using ‘tolerance levels,’ which they hope will never be needed.

Unfortunately, perceived profligacy by the last Labour government has made pursuing efficiency the only show in town, and the grip of ‘treasury brain’ makes it hard to invest in resilience.

Yet it’s becoming tougher by the day to ignore the longterm costs that come with this approach. Just before Christmas, under the leadership of Oliver Dowden, the Government published its long-awaited ‘Resilience Framework’, defining resilience as ‘an ability to withstand or quickly recover from a difficult situation, but also to get ahead of those risks and tackle challenges before they manifest’. Dowden argued that ‘we need to strengthen the underpinning systems that provide our resilience to all risks’.

If Professor Hood is to be believed, there’s a lot the framework’s authors could learn from engineers. Hood argues that alongside tolerance levels, resilience depends on ‘redundancy’ – whereby multiple units ensure that if one crashes, others can take over, and he suggests that ‘bounce-backability’ can be boosted by using components that are rapidly replaceable. Ultimately though, there’s no getting away from the need for a healthy maintenance regime, since services that are held together with gaffer-tape are less likely to withstand, or recover from, shocks.

Of course, as former Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Gauke points out, this isn’t to say we should abandon the pursuit of efficiency. Waste is real and it takes funds away from where they could be deployed to greater effect.

Gauke, who participated in the roundtable that informed the report, has previously called for a new Office of Spending Evaluation to judge the longterm value of spending decisions. Suggestions from other contributors also include a new funding classification – similar to capital spending, that would allow preventative spending to be spread out over a longer period.

Regardless of how expenditure is classified, public perceptions have to shift. The ‘waste’ narrative is strong, and a generalised sense of national decline and loosened social bonds has prompted a defensive retreat across society, squeezing out longterm ambition. The report therefore echoes recent calls from the think-tank Demos for investment in ‘Foundational Policy’ to build the networks and solidarities that underpin more resilient communities and relational public services. This type of policy could involve community wealth funds, an expanded community ownership fund and reforms to the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

My own interest in resilience in public services comes from two decades of work in the education and youth sector. Having started my career as a youth worker, I went on to watch as a procession of former colleagues got made redundant.

It’s easy to see why ‘just in case’, universal, preventative youth services have come to be seen as ‘wasteful’; after all, in a period of austerity, who wants councils paying for Dean to play ping–pong and to have a chat with Little Johnny? Until that is, Little Johnny’s family ends up in crisis and Dean is the only person they’ll open the front-door to. It turns out, the glue that holds many communities together is relational, and a mish-mash of shortterm funding pots have weakened that glue to breaking point. To stretch a metaphor – the sector’s abutments have been dropped to a level that would make Thomas Telford weep.

Decluttering is all well and good, but if we want to marry efficiency and resilience in public services, we’re going to need a much more nuanced approach to understanding value. Unfortunately, it’s only now, when the consequences of running a system on hot for too long are so tangible, that the case for resilience can no longer be ignored.

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Loic Menzies is Visiting Fellow at the Sheffield Institute of Education; Senior Research Associate at Jesus College IF Cambridge and Associate Education Specialist at Cambridge Assessment Network.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.