Tom Richmond: Churchill would not have stood for this flooding farce

Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss meets the media in Tadcaster.
Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss meets the media in Tadcaster.
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SEVEN decades after his finest hour, what would Winston Churchill have made of the Yorkshire floods?

It doesn’t require a political genius to work out that he would have admired the Churchillian spirit of all those who rallied to the rescue of victims and put pontificating politicians to shame.

Yet I’m also certain that flood-hit towns like Tadcaster would not have been abandoned – the Army, under his command, would have started building a temporary Bailey bridge across the River Wharfe to replace the 300-year-old structure which could not withstand the might of Mother Nature.

Now compare and contrast this leadership with the wishy-washy approach of Elizabeth Truss, the Prime Minister’s foot soldier at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and whose communications officer this week requested that the Minister’s “wellwishes” be passed on to Yorkshire.

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This damp squib of a Minister told Tadcaster residents during a goodwill visit 10 days ago that building a temporary bridge was a “national priority”. Really? By Monday, there were reports that this could take a year, despite residents facing a detour of many miles in the meantime via the dangerous A64, and Ms Truss was in full retreat on Tuesday when Nicholas Soames – Churchill’s grandson – posed one of the few objective questions posed by Tory MPs.

“Has my right hon. friend considered asking the Army, and particularly the Royal Engineers, to intervene, given that their skills – the sappers’ skills – with bridging rivers is legendary, and they could easily and quickly replace the lost bridges?” he asked.

The reply? “The Royal Engineers are involved, and they have been involved in both Cumbria and Yorkshire, looking at finding possible solutions for those bridges,” said Ms Truss.

It’s a good job these are just floods, and not a war. These weasel words hardly inspire confidence in the Government’s willingness to stand by Yorkshire in this county’s hour of need. A politician committed to getting this county back on its feet would already have known whether it was feasible to erect Bailey bridges at Tadcaster, Elland and those locations across the North where river crossings are now impassable and causing immense inconvenience. If this was the Home Counties, the response would have been far swifter.

Any half-competent junior Minister, or official at North Yorkshire County Council, would also know that the military specialise in this work – Britain’s overseas aid obligations extend to infrastructure projects – and that the Army would be only too willing to assist a county which has such a proud association with the Armed Forces.

Yet this delay and dither is emblematic of the erosion of trust between flooding victims and David Cameron’s government which continues to exploit Labour’s internal disarray by misleading the public.

However, while Tory MPs (with the honourable exception of Mr Soames) lined up to ask toadying questions to help the embattled Ms Truss, their constituents were none the wiser about whether the £40m hastily promised by David Cameron last weekend to flooding victims in Yorkshire was new cash, as portrayed by Downing Street, or money cobbled together from unspecified sources.

They also have a right to be given truthful information about the status of the £197m Leeds flood defence blueprint which was scrapped in 2011 because of cost cuts before being replaced with an inferior plan – Mr Cameron twice ducked questions on this at PMQs, despite saying no scheme had been ditched on his watch.

Even if the Government is spending more money than previous administrations, as it claims, no one believes this assertion any longer because of David Cameron’s inability 
to answer straight questions with straight answers. Transparency is not the only lesson that needs to be learned.

When will there be an independent assessment of spending on flood prevention so voters can determine whether the Government’s claims hold water, and whether this expenditure needs to be increased?

When will officials look to learn the lessons of Pickering which managed to avoid the worst of floods because residents worked with nature to slow the flow of water? This could be particularly significant for those residents and businesses in the Calder Valley which continue to endure a living hell.

When will the dredgers return to Yorkshire’s rivers?

When will national and local politicians reverse those planning policies which are exacerbating the difficulties, whether it be homes built on flood-plains or the increased levels of surface water because there’s not enough shrubbery to soak up the precipitation?

These are just four questions. I could go on. There are many more. But they are four of the most basic and, shamefully, there’s little likelihood of them being answered by a Government which seems to spend more time buck-passing rather than facing up to its obligations.

Just look at how the line of responsibility has been blurred in the past two weeks. There’s David Cameron, the Prime Minister, too afraid to meet the people in York. There is Mr Cameron’s floods envoy Robert Goodwill, who has already come under fire for making misleading statements over the funding of flood measures in Leeds. There is Mr Cameron’s policy chief Oliver Letwin, whose previous review into floods amounted to three cursory meetings. There is Mr Cameron’s business guru Sir Philip Dilley, the hapless head of the Environment Agency who soaked up the sun in Barbados as the rivers rose. And then there is the aforementioned Elizabeth Truss, who continues to over-promise and under-deliver.

I go on, but the point is this: If this is the best that the Government can offer, and I note George Osborne is among those with little to say on the floods, the whole of Yorkshire must pull together – and hold Ministers to account – so this county’s residents are never again treated as second class citizens.

In the meantime, the one comfort is that this motley crew were not at the helm during the Second World War. Unlike Churchill, they do not know the meaning of the words like ‘leadership’. Now where are the Royal Engineers? As the great man himself would have barked: “Action this day.”