Government must wake up to fresh misery over flooding with review of protections that Yorkshire communities deserve - Andrew Vine

A FRIEND in Hebden Bridge was one of the lucky ones. His home was just high enough up the valley where the town nestles to escape the flooding of a week ago.

A matter of a few hundred yards spared him. But it might not be enough next time. And so he spent the weekend just past watching the skies as anxiously as all the people he knows whose ruined possessions have been piled outside their homes, symbols of places that should be sanctuaries turned into disaster zones.

He worries constantly about rain, and so do all his friends and neighbours.

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Members of the Fire Brigade help with the clean up efforts in Hebden Bridge, after flooding brought by Storm Ciara. Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

This just can’t be allowed to go on happening. The people of 21st century Yorkshire shouldn’t be looking to the heavens in fear that all they work for is going to be destroyed by the elements.

Yet the roll call of communities where they do exactly that grows ever longer.

Last week, it was the people of the Calder Valley. This week, it might be those of York. Only months ago, it was the residents of the Don Valley. Before that, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, Malton, Ilkley, Pickering.

We’re nowhere near clear of winter yet. Over the coming weeks, it’s more likely than possible that another area is added to the list.

People help to clear up at a business in Hebden Bridge. Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

The time has come for the Government to launch a comprehensive new study of flooding and what is needed to protect communities from it.

The last such in-depth review was published 12 years ago, and that’s too long a gap, because it has become apparent that episodes of extreme rainfall causing water to cascade from hills and rivers to burst their banks are ever more frequent.

It was the severity of the floods of 2007 that prompted the then Labour government to order a comprehensive review of Britain’s preparedness by Sir Michael Pitt, a senior civil servant.

That summer, 55,000 homes were flooded and the waters killed 13 people. Our county was amongst the worst-hit areas and suffered grievously. In Hull, 7,000 properties were flooded.

People help to clear up at a business in Hebden Bridge. Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

In Sheffield, more than 200 people were evacuated, and 20 airlifted from the roof of a building in the Lower Don Valley on to which they had scrambled to escape rising water.

Sir Michael’s 500-page report, published in 2008, made nearly 100 recommendations, many of which have resulted in better flood defences. But the line from his conclusions that echoes down the years is the warning that the problem was likely to become worse.

How grimly prophetic that has proved to be. And that makes it imperative a new review is ordered to take stock of what the flooding risk is now and in the future, and what can be done about it.

More than a decade of climate change has taken place since the Pitt Review, and goodness knows how many houses have been built on flood plains since then.

Lessons need to be drawn about how effective defences put in place over that period have proved to be, and a strategic view taken of what needs to happen in the years ahead.

Such a review would serve to focus minds in Government, where there appears to be an absence of long-term thinking.

Each flood seems to be treated as a one-off crisis that is dealt with and then the wider issue recedes into the background until the next time it happens. The debris is swept away, and ministers forget.

Does the memory of what he saw in the flooded Don Valley not long before Christmas ever cross Boris Johnson’s mind now? I doubt it.

This Government’s attitude of clean up and then move on must change. People all over Yorkshire can attest that these are anything but one-off incidents. For them, flooding is never a background issue, but constantly at the forefront of their minds every time heavy rainfall is forecast.

Protecting cities, towns and villages from flooding has to be viewed in the same light as building HS2 – as a long-term, strategic project for the greater good of the country, costly but necessary if areas are to thrive, with the added dimension of preventing people’s lives being ruined.

Reviews of the NHS and the armed services happen at least every 10 years, so why not Britain’s state of preparedness for floods?

It should study best practice not only in Britain but from around the world in protecting communities, because there are success stories to be told, not least from our own county.

Pickering, flooded four times between 1999 and 2007, the last causing damage of £7m, has been protected by environmental measures that slow the flow of rainwater from the moors above it. Is there a lesson there for safeguarding the Calder Valley?

There are myriad questions to be asked about flood protection. Yorkshire is not getting the answers it deserves.

It will only do so when the Government wakes up to how overdue a comprehensive new study of the entire issue is, and sets one up.