Tom Richmond: The PM must answer this county’s cry for help over floods

David Cameron met soldiers in York, but was shielded from victims of the floods.
David Cameron met soldiers in York, but was shielded from victims of the floods.
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I’M lucky. My home was not flooded – and my heart goes out to all those whose lives have been left in ruins by this week’s devastating floods.

Yet, like them, I share the growing tide of anger over the failure of successive governments to fulfil their primary duty: to protect their own people.

And, at a time when it is so easy to be shocked by events in a world which appears to be at war with itself, whether it be global terrorism or its struggle with Mother Nature, three incidents here in Yorkshire left me speechless.

The first was driving down Kirkstall Road, one of the main roads in Leeds, and seeing the protective padding from the rugby league goalposts used at the Leeds Rhinos’ training ground wrapped around a tree’s branches. Was the rampaging River Aire really this high? This, and then the 300-year-old bridge in Tadcaster collapsing into the swollen water, were images to last a lifetime.

The second was walking into a supermarket and seeing collecting buckets for the victims. So typical of Yorkshire’s world-renowned public-spiritedness, this benevolence is usually only requested after the apocalypse has struck some faraway country rather than the county I’m proud to call home.

And the third was David Cameron’s fleeting visit to York to view the damage. Carefully stage-managed to avoid the indignant flooding victims, I never thought I would live to see the day when the Prime Minister was so reluctant, even afraid, to meet his people. Shame on him – this complacent contempt was only surpassed by his spineless decision not to chair the following morning’s Cobra emergency response committee to put in place lessons supposedly learned from his visit. This no-show left him guilty of the charge of gesture politics.

Mr Cameron is not alone – visits by Environment Secretary Liz Truss and Communities Secretary Greg Clark – have been similarly sterile and smack of a Cabinet in collective denial about neglecting the North’s needs. What happened here would not have been allowed to occur in London.

If these Ministers had met more victims, they might have comprehended this county’s despair. They would also have heard moving stories like the lady from Hebden Bridge who telephoned a radio phone-in and said that not only was the damage far greater than the 2012 floods which swamped the Calder Valley, but she had been unable to get any insurance following that disaster in spite of Ministerial promises to the contrary.

Two points struck me. The cost of the damage – £50,000 was her estimate – but the stoicism in her voice. She had every right to be angry – this, after all, is the area where Mr Cameron told flood-hit residents in 2012 that “the Government stands by to help in any we can” – but that anger was masked by a quiet defiance across this great county as the filthy floodwater slowly subsides.

Despite the indifference of Ministers – the aforementioned Ms Truss tried to take the credit for £33m of preventative measures in Leeds when her Government axed a far more robust £180m scheme in 2011 – I’m sure these victims will pull through thanks to the public’s benevolence and the generosity of strangers.

Yet this does not excuse the country’s political elite who regard Northerners as second class citizens. Mr Cameron’s past promises after flooding disasters, whether it be its offer to the Calder Valley or “money no object promise” when the Thames, and also Somerset, were submerged, have proved to be worthless empty words.

The policy failures over many years are also staggering, whether it be an insurance system that is in tatters, the mania for building new homes on flood plains which exist for good reason and the fact that the Government’s additional money for defences – piffling sums in comparison the £5.8bn of damage incurred last month – has been offset by town hall budget cuts that has seen schemes cancelled, postponed or scaled back. This false economy is unsustainable.

This has also not been helped by the Opposition’s ineptitude. Good government requires effective scrutiny and I’m proud, as the comment editor of this newspaper, that The Yorkshire Post’s hard-hitting editorials have exposed these serial shortcomings. This has been even more important because of Labour’s deafening silence and the Scottish Nationalists appearing not to bother either.

I note Andrew Percy, the Conservative MP for Brigg and Goole, took to Twitter to denounce the paper’s coverage as “political nonsense”, but he must be one of the few people who think the Government has done a good job – the Environment Secretary, after all, was the first Minister to sign up to the Chancellor’s spending review. I remain of the view that she could, and should, have stood her ground and ensured she secured more money for flood defences.

What next when Parliament reconvenes? The promised review into flood defences does not go far enough. The whole planning system myst be reviewed to to ensure all new properties are built with extreme weather in mind. It’s pointless pressing ahead with new developments if they’re going to be washed away. The management of rivers also needs addressing, not least the impact of EU regulations on basic maintenance.

The Government and Environment Agency’s work needs a far clearer focus. There are too many chiefs –and not enough people progressing new schemes. If former EA boss Chris Smith was bad enough, his successor, Sir Philip Dilley, has proved even worse and only returned from his Barbados bolthole grudgingly. Yet how many times has the word ‘unprecedented’ been used to describe the recent carnage? If more money has to be found, so be it. I note on my tax return that £144 of my hard-earned money was spent on the environment in the past year while £110 was my contribution to Britain’s £12bn a year overseas aid obligations, including the £1bn given to the world’s most corrupt nations. I think the time has come for taxpayers to be given a choice on this.

In the meantime, the people of Yorkshire must maintain the political pressure until the tide turns and the Prime Minister answers this county’s cry for help. Over to you, David Cameron.