OUR HEARTS go out to all those families and businesses now counting the cost of some of the worst floods in this county’s history. Theirs is a nightmare which will last for many months as they begin the thankless task of repairing properties which suffered untold damage when rivers burst their banks, and breached defences where they exist, after rising to record levels.
The only comfort, as victims come to terms with this personal – and economic – catastrophe, is that they were spared an even greater disaster by the emergency services, and other agencies like the Army, who worked tirelessly to rescue stricken people. They even deployed boats and then waded waist high through dangerous currents to reach the most vulnerable in their hour of need. They are all heroes in the truest sense of this over-used word and were helped by those public-spirited residents who offered invaluable assistance.
This community spirit, so self-evident in Cumbria and Lancashire recently, will be critical in the coming days and weeks so the affected areas, large and small alike, can pick up the pieces and enable shops and businesses to reopen their doors at the first opportunity.
If only the same could be said for the Government’s response to this crisis – and previous incidents of flooding. For, while David Cameron did acknowledge the scale of a disaster now predicted to cost the national economy up to £1.5bn, his sincerity masks his administration’s abiding failure to take this issue sufficiently seriously.
The Prime Minister repeatedly used the word ‘unprecedented’ to describe this winter’s storms. Yet every fortnight brings ‘unprecedented’ levels of new flooding and the same pious platitudes from politicians, like Environment Secretary Liz Truss, whose rhetoric is increasingly economical with the truth.
For, while Ms Truss is right to highlight the real terms increase in the amount her department, Defra, has allocated for flood defences, she chooses to overlook the fact that many schemes are subject to partnership funding from councils and other agencies whose budgets have been decimated by spending cuts.
The disingenuous Environment Secretary was also the first Minister to sign on the dotted line when it came to the Chancellor’s spending review. A more adept politician would have fought, tooth and nail, to ensure that investment was sufficient to appease those who believe that the UK’s overseas aid budget should be used to pay for flood prevention schemes here.
Yet, while the very best defences may not have withstood these torrents, it is right that the Prime Minister instigates an urgent review of his Government’s policy – not only must money be spent effectively but the defences must be effective and benefit those communities flooded on a regular basis.
Nothing should be off the table, whether it be the actual level of infrastructure investment, the inevitable rise in insurance premiums, the effectiveness of early warning systems, deficiencies with antiquated drains, the senseless building on flood plains and the dredging and maintenance of Yorkshire’s rivers and streams. The urgency of this exercise dictates that preliminary findings should be presented to Parliament next month.
In the meantime, Mr Cameron needs to remember that Yorkshire and the North will not become an economic powerhouse if left to the mercy of “unprecedented” weather events because past and present governments failed to invest in adequate flood defences and contingency planning. The Prime Minister should be aware that the cost of inaction is greater expense in the long-term, and even more heartache for those families on the flooding frontline. It’s time for the political tide to turn, starting now.