AT LEAST Theresa Villiers – the invisible Environment Secretary at the time of the South Yorkshire floods – managed to put in a public appearance and answer questions from MPs about the aftermath of Storm Ciara’s devastation before venturing north.
Yet every response confirmed that Ms Villiers is both hopelessly out of her policy depth – she’s tipped for demotion or the sack in the Cabinet reshuffle – and distracted by other issues like climate change and Brexit. It was indefensible.
All she did was justify The Yorkshire Post’s call for a high-profile Minister for Flooding and Coast to co-ordinate policy and ensure that promised flood defences are built, and rivers managed – even dredged – to control the flow of the water.
After all, much of the damage in Mytholmroyd, Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and the rest of the Calder Valley could have been avoided if the ‘money no object’ defences promised by David Cameron after the Storm Desmond floods of December 2015 had been completed. Why not?
Meanwhile Leeds had a lucky escape. It was spared – just – major flooding as Ministers continue to quibble over £23m needed to complete the city’s flood defences. And Hull, and other low-lying areas of the Humber Estuary, remain on constant alert while the rate of erosion at Skipsea is a living nightmare for residents there.
Try telling this to Mrs Villiers when Luke Pollard, Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, asked for the date for the ‘flood summit’ that Boris Johnson promised last November when South Yorkshire flooded. No answer, but she did urge communities to engage with their councils. Talk about buck-passing.
Or her obfuscation when Doncaster MP Ed Miliband accused the Government of delaying the payment of ‘match’ funding it promised after South Yorkshire Community Foundation raised £600,000 for victims on its patch. She said she would look into it.
Or calls from Calder Valley MP Jason McCartney to “get councils clearing culverts and drains of leaves”. Both the newly-elected MP – and Minister – seemed oblivious to the word ‘austerity’.
Mrs Villiers did – in fairness – accept an invitation from Halifax MP Holly Lynch to meet victims after the Labour politician said the damage in her area extended to 400 residential properties, 400 businesses, eight schools, two care homes and two bridges. Yet she was unavailable for regional media scrutiny during this impromptu goodwill visit.
And when Shipley MP Philip Davies pointed out that the victims in his constituency had also been flooded in 2015, she promised “a fresh look to make sure that everything possible is being done to keep those flood defence projects on track for delivery”. There was no explanation of why this is not the case.
But when Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves asked about the £23m ‘missing’ money for Leeds, the Minister stonewalled: “We have an extensive programme that we are in the course of delivering.” Delivering?
When Brigg and Goole MP Andrew Percy called for extra spending on the drainage of dykes and ditches, there was no assurance. “That, no doubt, will be considered at the Budget and the Spending Review,” she said. In other words, blame the Treasury.
And then this from Hull North’s Dame Diana Johnson on the Flood Re insurance scheme: “What is her advice to those who are not covered under the present scheme – leaseholders, homeowners who live in properties built after 2009 and businesses, particularly microbusinesses or businesses run from home – and are finding it very difficult to get any insurance?”
The response? “These matters will be considered in the independent review, which is under way,” said Mrs Villiers.
Sorry, but that won’t wash with those people living in fear of the rain. Delay and dither won’t plug the holes in flood defences – or insurance policy loopholes. They want commitments as robust as the ‘no expense spared’ schemes which are now protecting the Thames Valley.
They also don’t want the buck-passing that takes place between Whitehall ministries, the Environment Agency, local councils and others. They demand action – hence a specific Minister for Flooding and the Coast – and for that person not to be Theresa Villiers. She appears even less effective than Liz Truss, the then Defra Secretary, was after the 2015 floods. And that takes some doing.
Tom Richmond is Comment Editor of The Yorkshire Post. He tweets via Opinion YP.