What a difference two months makes. In November, when severe flooding hit the area around Fishlake in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers wrote a fulsome piece for The Yorkshire Post outlining a long list of impressive-sounding government measures designed to help those most at risk of losing their homes, possessions and livelihoods under a sea of filthy flood-water.
Now, following similar devastation in Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd in West Yorkshire in the wake of Storm Ciara, she finds herself suddenly shy. Her delays in speaking to regional media has been pithily observed, especially by this newspaper.
What’s changed, you might ask? People who are flooded out of their homes now are dealing with exactly the same problems as before; clearing up the mess, for a start, then facing months if not years of interaction with insurance companies to replace everything that has been lost.
If they have insurance, that is. Many homes and businesses prone to flooding are now effectively uninsurable, or face impossible-to-afford hikes in premiums and excess payments. The Flood Re scheme, a joint initiative between government and some insurance companies, which offers cover to flood-prone households and cuts down premium costs is often trotted out as proof that the Government is ‘doing something’.
However, its scope is limited, not least because you’re ineligible if your property was built after January 1, 2009. And it doesn’t even begin to address the institutional issue of certain insurers still refusing to pay up, dragging their feet and generally acting in an obstructive manner which piles financial distress on top of the post-traumatic shock of finding six foot of filthy water and sewage in your kitchen.
My friend’s elderly father, flooded out of his Barnsley home in November, passed away within weeks because his health deteriorated so rapidly. This is the human cost; my friend argues that because of complex central and local government funding arrangements, areas considered to be ‘less-privileged’ are left behind when it comes to installing flood defences.
This is an important point that I haven’t heard a single Minister effectively address, but I digress. What’s changed is that in the cold and stormy light of February, Ms Villiers and her ministerial colleagues are no longer fighting a general election campaign.
We are witnessing a creeping sense of ‘job done’, not only from the Environment Secretary, but from the Prime Minister himself. The pulling-up of the drawbridge, the vetting of lobby correspondents and the No 10-imposed ban on putting Ministers up for grilling on Radio 4’s Today programme does not bode well for accountability – or democracy.
Extraordinary video shows Calder Valley underwater as River Calder bursts its banks
And it certainly does nothing to improve North/South relations. Has Mr Johnson, fresh from announcing the go-ahead for HS2, forgotten so quickly his friends in the North?
People I know can’t believe that once again, Northern communities are effectively being abandoned to their own devices. On Monday morning I received an urgent email from another friend, in London. She had seen the swirling waters on the television news and was anxious that it might be affecting us in Barnsley.
She simply couldn’t believe that flooding on such scale was being regarded in such a cavalier manner. We agreed that if this was Chiswick, say, the leafy riverside suburb of West London where Ms Villiers was born, under six foot of water, the story would be very different.
Why can’t Yorkshire be offered the same ‘no expense spared’ flood-prevention schemes which protect the Thames Valley around Reading and Oxford? Do we matter when it comes to flagship policies such as HS2, but not when it means outlaying government money on protecting our towns, cities and villages from rain? If Yorkshire flooding continues on this scale and with such increased frequency – making a mockery of the existing ‘once in 30/50/100 years event’ calculations used to estimate flood risk – the promised economic resurgence will be washed away before it can even begin.
The collective denial that our weather is changing, the buck-passing between Ministers, civil servants, the Environment Agency and local councils, and the refusal of government to create any kind of serious plan encompassing everything from financial compensation, emergency powers and flood-aware ways to build homes has to stop before things get even worse.
Boris Johnson could show that he really is the leader he says he is by appointing, immediately, a dedicated Minister for Flooding and the Coast. He must find someone who can get to grips with what amounts to nothing short of environmental and economic disaster – perhaps one of the new Northern Conservative MPs champing at the bit for a challenge?