YP Comment: Leeds flood defence snub is indefensible - and a false economy

An aerial view of Kirkstall Road, Leeds, during the floods.
An aerial view of Kirkstall Road, Leeds, during the floods.
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HOW many times must Leeds – the third largest city in the country – be flooded before the Government digs deep and provides adequate defences for the many homes and businesses which find themselves at risk when the river Aire bursts its banks?

It is a question which David Cameron is now duty-bound to answer after Elizabeth Truss, the Environment Secretary who actually grew up in Leeds, told local MPs told local MPs that the budgets of Defra – and the Environment Agency – are so set in stone for six years that she can’t even afford a £3m feasibility study at present.

Not only is such short-sightedness a total false economy, especially if Leeds is submerged in the interim, but it means that the city – key to the region’s economic prosperity – could be waiting a generation for the defences first proposed after the 2007 floods and which then fell victim to coalition cuts in 2011.

Though Ministers have grudgingly agreed to fund a smaller scheme in Leeds which is now being constructed, and forked out £40m to aid with the recovery operation still underway across the county, it will not benefit Kirkstall – scene of some of the worst damage – and exposes the Government’s derisory record on five fronts.

First, this snub makes a mockery of Mr Cameron’s vague promises to help victims – he tweeted on December 28 after a goodwill visit to York that this county “will get more of the protection needed to deal with floods”.

Second, funding is clearly biased in favour of the South where a £300m project was approved for the Thames Valley in late 2014. Why not Leeds – and those Calder Valley towns flooded on countless occasions?

Third, it exposes the inflexibility of the £2.3bn budget for flood defences which Ms Truss agreed prior to the Autumn Statement. Why did she not hold out for more money – or make provision for contingency funding?

Fourth, the Environment Secretary’s fatuous statement on local authority funding does not acknowledge the budget pressures facing town halls.

And finally there is the mental anguish which is, frankly, incalculable. The Government’s funding models, used to determine whether such projects offer sufficient value for money to the taxpayer, make no allowance for the heartache suffered by those who lost their possessions, who might struggle to sell their properties if they wish to move and who will be left without affordable insurance until the river Aire’s defences are raised.

Four weeks after Storm Eva unleashed the full force of her misery, and with Mr Cameron now under immense pressure to over-rule a contemptuous Ms Truss who regards the North as an irritating inconvenience, the PM and his Environment Secretary should ask themselves if they would treat their own constituents with such complacency – and would the governments of other leading world economies be so cavalier when it comes to protecting their major cities? Given that the answer to both points will be in the negative, it makes their betrayal of Leeds even more indefensible – and even more unforgivable. As the stench of hypocrisy becomes overwhelming, both must think again before their reputations sink still further.

Firm foundations

PM must address skills question

LIKE a batsman bowling a “dolly” to get off the mark, Richmond MP Rishi Sunak’s question to David Cameron at the beginning of PMQs about the latest fall in unemployment served a similar purpose – the Tory leader used this most gentle of looseners to hit Labour’s economic record for six.

With Labour in total disarray, Mr Cameron was not going to miss out – a record number of people are now in work and the unemployment rate is below the pre-recession level as the private sector returns to prosperity.

Yet the Prime Minister’s bullishness at the despatch box, the political equivalent of the cricket crease, did reveal some vulnerability – he ignored Jeremy Corbyn’s remarks about the beleaguered steel industry and there are concerns that the recovery being enjoyed in London has yet to filter through to the North with sufficient impetus as the global economy slows down.

It is why the remarks of Richard Flint, chief executive of Leeds-based Sky Betting & Gaming, are so prescient. Yorkshire’s digital sector is thriving, but it is struggling to recruit sufficient staff with the right skills so it can expand its work still further across this region.

Mr Flint has proposed ways in which this sector can help itself, but the most radical is the most political – a directly-elected mayor for Yorkshire who can address the skills shortage. His motives are sound. Unless this issue is prioritised, the North will be left stumped to use cricketing parlance because employers will either move elsewhere or recruit tech-savvy migrants. In this respect, the PM needs to remember that the economy is not a sport.