HAS the Environment Secretary, Elizabeth Truss, been washed away in the floods? I only ask because she’s been keeping such a low-profile since her bedraggled visit to Tadcaster.
The worst flooding in living memory hit Yorkshire and the North between Christmas and the start of this new year, plunging hundreds of square miles of the country under several feet of water.
Shouldn’t we have expected a more rumbustious response from the Cabinet Minister in charge? Shouldn’t she, from the very outset, have been rallying her troops, instead of leaving it to the emergency services and Army?
A few weeks before Christmas, Ms Truss defended her support of the current allocation of £2.3bn for defences by saying it will avoid “lumpy bits of flood spending”. Her adjective was clumsy, but appropriate for her own Government’s response to this natural disaster which has ruined homes and businesses and will cost countless amounts for local councils and individuals in terms of repairs and recovery. “Lumpy” indeed it has been.
Nothing has highlighted the North/South divide like it. David Cameron was roused from his Christmas jollies to venture up here with fine words and a Berghaus fleece, but anyone could see he had no choice but to put in an appearance.
You only have to look at the approbation meted out to Philip Dilley, the chairman of the Environment Agency, who took days to return from his sunny holiday in Barbados, to realise that it would would have been foolish for Cameron to do anything else – remember how Jim Callaghan’s fate was sealed in 1979when he returned from warmer climes to the winter of discontent and The Sun’s ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ headline?
However, as for the rest of them, well, talk about lumpy. The Government response has been about as co-ordinated as the congealed Christmas custard lurking at the back of the fridge. When I look back on these terrible weeks, my abiding memory of Government intervention will be the so-called Floods Minister, Rory Stewart, looking scared out of his wits at almost being knocked off his feet into the swirling torrents.
At least he was succinct. “We are being beaten by this relentless rain,” he said. In that he is right. This is a point on which we can all agree, even the politicians. If we take it as read, then surely what is needed this year is a strategy and approach which cuts across boundaries of local, regional and national government, over-rides political point-scoring and accepts that whatever the personal view or party line, climate change is making our famously unpredictable British weather downright dangerous. Mother Nature is more powerful than any party whip.
And we need those in charge to have a plan that promises more than a National Flood Resilience Review. The Prime Minister seems to think that uttering the words “emergency Cobra committee” will somehow reassure all those people who are about to lose personal possessions, mementoes and irreplaceable photographs under a deluge of flood water.
We’ve had severe weather such as this for more than a decade now. For too long, there has been too much reaction, and not enough preventative action. Haughty Government “experts” have ignored the pleas of local government leaders and are now looking at mighty city centres such as Leeds under feet of water.
How can Ministers talk of a Northern Powerhouse while sidestepping questions about the measures which are necessary to safeguard our infrastructure? Four years ago, the then government refused to support a £180m scheme to protect the city centre of Leeds in such a flooding event as we have witnessed. Yet it went ahead and gave the green light to a £279m flood-prevention plan for the Conservative heartlands of the Thames Valley. And what do we get instead? An emergency grant. It is very noble of the Government to announce a £50m “support package” to help the homes and businesses affected to recover from their losses. However impressive the sum sounds, it has been plucked out of the heavy, laden sky. Greg Mulholland, the Lib Dem MP for Leeds North West, and whose constituency has been badly affected, calls it “inadequate”. He is right. The accountancy firm KPMG have calculated that the economic impact will top £5bn.
Can the North of England both shoulder this and move forward as befitting its Powerhouse status? Of course not. And it’s not just the pure economic facts. It’s the effect on investment, on the value of our homes, the safety and reliability of our roads, railways and bridges. How can we even begin to fight on an equal footing with London and the South East when such basics are not even being addressed?
I don’t know about you but I am sick of politicians popping up and down – or not, in the case of the Environment Secretary – without any consensus. Homes and businesses are left with the debris of ruined lives to put back together. Our politicians meanwhile should be looking square in the eye the flotsam and jetsam of their useless – there is no other word for it – policy on protecting the whole of the UK against the danger of extreme flooding. It is time for them to act, and now, before the next weather front descends.