YP Budget Comment: Show us your money, George, over flood defence pledge

THIS newspaper makes no apology for focusing its post-Budget analysis on the additional £700m that the Government intends to spend on flood defences between now and 2020 following an increase in insurance taxes.

George Osborne delivers his Budget to Parliament in which there was confusin over the veracity of his commitment to flood defences.

This announcement, and Chancellor George Osborne’s specific promise to invest in schemes in Leeds, York and the Calder Valley, appears at face value to vindicate all those who have been campaigning for increased investment after homes and businesses were ruined by the December floods. Victims continue to endure a living nightmare.

It is an injustice which cannot be ignored and which has become a raison d’être for The Yorkshire Post as this newspaper, and this county, awaits the courtesy of a reply from David Cameron to our open letter which demanded a long-term flood management plan for our region, covering issues such as future investment, river management and insurance. After 53 days and counting, the wait goes on.

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After all, the Government’s record on this issue is not a trustworthy one as Mr Osborne, and Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss, prepare to visit Yorkshire to defend a very political Budget in which the Chancellor will hope his decision to raise personal tax allowances, and help small businesses, will offset the gathering storm clouds in the global economy as UK growth forecasts are downgraded.

This is the Government which chose – in 2011 – to cancel the flood alleviation scheme proposed for the Aire Valley in Leeds after the 2007 floods. This short-sighted decision is now looking even more of a false economy as firms are forced to shut because of the scale of the damage.

This is also the Government which has repeatedly prioritised London and the South East when it comes to major infrastructure decisions, not least new flood defences pledged for the Thames Valley in late 2014.

And this is a Government headed by a Prime Minister who promised that money was no object when the Calder Valley was hit by floods in 2012 – and then failed to live up to his word.

Given this, Mr Osborne will understand why his announcement is being greeted with such cautious scepticism. Though the delivery of his Budget speech implied that proposed schemes for Leeds, York, Calder Valley and Carlisle will be funded in full, the fact of the matter is that these four areas are only entitled, according to Treasury documents, to £150m of the additional £700m being made available and that this allocation is, in fact, only a modest contribution towards the cost. The Chancellor is now honour-bound to provide greater clarity.

This one issue is also fundamental to a Budget in which Mr Osborne promised to put the “next generation” first. If this is the truth, and not just another soundbite, the Chancellor will realise that £700m represents little more than a drop in the proverbial ocean if communities under threat from floods are to be better protected in the future so they, too, can prosper when the economy picks up.

Generation game: Question over academy plan

THE Chancellor’s desire to raise school standards should be welcomed. Britain will only prosper if today’s pupils gain the qualifications and skills that will enable them to hold their own in a 21st century digital economy. What is less welcome, however, is George Osborne’s obdurate insistence that all primary and secondary state schools need to become an academy for this to happen.

Thirty years after Margaret Thatcher allowed schools to “opt out” of council control, the record of academies is still mixed – good reason that the Tories should caution against putting dogma before the needs of “the next generation” championed by Mr Osborne. Far more reassurance is needed if this policy is to command the confidence of parents and teachers alike.

How will the management and ethos of academy chains, currently exempt from Ofsted, be monitored after the watchdog’s chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw highlighted serial shortcomings last week with the governance of such organisations? Is it justifiable for chief executives of such chains to earn £225,000? Who has the final say on the allocation of school places? What if a school is left without a sponsor, espically those rural primaries which depend on LEA support? And how will the Chancellor’s proposed extra-curricular activities, like sport and music, be funded and staffed?

These are just five questions. There are many more. Nevertheless, the Government needs to caution against academies converting schools into businesses, and pupils into production line operatives. As such, Ministers should only pursue this policy if and when there is conclusive evidence that this approach will drive up academic standards. The so-called “next generation” deserve nothing less.