IN a general election, all the talk is normally about who’s making the political weather. But over the last week, instead, it’s been the weather making our politics – and exposing its shortcomings.
I think many voters will feel that if there was a party called “None of the Above” running in this election, it might well get a landslide victory.
When I spoke to my own family in Rotherham at the end of last week, having only been there days before, it was already clear how bad the flooding in Yorkshire was.
They were safe and sound but other people just a few miles down the road were badly caught up in events. Some were stuck in local shopping centres including Sheffield’s Meadowhall and Parkgate in Rotherham, others saw their businesses and homes badly damaged.
This was a crisis that needed a Government-led, co-ordinated response within five hours. Instead it took five days before Ministers seemed to get a grip, which was totally unacceptable.
Those running our Government, consumed by the Brexit Game of Thrones, seem to have forgotten that in the end politics isn’t about game-playing in Westminster. It’s about real people, and real lives. And with power comes responsibility.
As the Prime Minister said himself, the buck stops with him. He might not be responsible for the terrible weather, but he was responsible for ensuring the Government response to it was swift and effective. It wasn’t. That’s why he found himself in the eye of a storm of his own making this week. Less of a natural weather disaster, more of a man-made political one.
There should have been no bigger priority over that previous five days than helping people across the Yorkshire region who in many cases had lost just about everything. No wonder some local people wouldn’t shake Boris Johnson’s hand when he finally turned up in South Yorkshire.
Nevertheless, we’ve also seen local communities at their best, pulling together and helping one another, as ever with tireless support from our emergency services and now the army.
It’s been an instinctive reaction from people living side by side. And after the flat-footed response by Government to the floods, politicians must now make some amends by ensuring that not only is there the immediate and emergency clear up support, but that there is also a longer-term plan.
Homes and businesses have been damaged and they will need investment to get the repairs so that people can live and work in them again. The Environment Agency also needs to invest to better protect communities from future floods and that starts with listening to people on the ground, including the farmers who know the land better than anyone.
But it can’t just be about repairing the physical fabric of their communities. There’s social damage too. People’s prospects have been damaged as well as buildings and homes. So, we also need a plan to help people in communities get their lives back on track too.
If we really want to support the communities badly affected by the floods, then the investment should take its cue from the way they have courageously pulled together during this crisis. What we’ve all seen is the community spirit and Yorkshire grit that’s there all year round – crisis or no crisis.
The real sense of community means that people are always ready to step forward to help one another, but it also means they know what needs to be done to fix the problems. It’s a powerful combination and Government should get behind that.
That was my approach as Secretary of State for Education, when I put three Opportunity Areas in the Yorkshire region – Bradford, Doncaster and the North Yorkshire coast. These are plans centred around a local team – teachers, businesses, and communities working together for better schools for children and young people. And they’re already starting to bear fruit and deliver better education results, which is why it’s good news that Ministers have given new funding for all 12 Opportunity Areas across the country to continue their work.
Equally, I’ve seen the very same community spirit and determination with my work on the Social Mobility Pledge. It’s striking how many businesses and universities from the region stepped forward to spread opportunity more widely – both universities in York, Bradford University, businesses like PwC setting up a brand new office in Bradford and many others that have got involved. In the months to come I want to help all those organisations work together to really lift opportunity in the region.
The Yorkshire floods have shown the best of the people on the ground. If politicians learn anything from this past week, I hope it’s that investing in the grass roots – people and communities – is how you really get change.
The reality is it doesn’t take a crisis for communities in this region to work together. They’re already doing it everyday, supporting one another. Yorkshire’s biggest asset is its people. Now Ministers must believe in the people and back them.