Tom Richmond: ‘No, no, no’ to out-of-depth Minister’s floods wheeze

Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss, in Yorkshire this week.
Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss, in Yorkshire this week.
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THREE words sum up my response to the idea of a floods tax which is the latest wheeze to be floated by the increasingly out-of-depth Elizabeth Truss to shore up her environment budget and plunging credibility: “No, no, no.”

Like Margaret Thatcher who used the same phrase to make clear her strident opposition to closer political and economic union across Europe, they are equally applicable to the hopeless Environment Secretary who would surely have resigned by now if there was any honour left in politics.

One month after Yorkshire was left up to its knees in filthy floodwater, and one month after The Yorkshire Post started to hold the Government to account through its editorial columns and demand justice for the county, there are three very good reasons why residents should say ‘no’ to this levy.

First, it masks the fact that Ms Truss negotiated a very poor deal with the Treasury when she signed up to a six-year flood defence budget worth £2.3bn. One of the first Ministers to strike a deal with the Treasury before last year’s Autumn Statement, and proud to make a virtue of this fact, it is now clear she put her loyalty to George Osborne – she remains one of the Chancellor’s protégés – before all those communities which find themselves on he flooding frontline.

Second, it is very difficult to define “flood-hit” communities. Take Leeds. Would her plan apply to the whole city where the Government has now consented to a review of flood defences a week after saying there was no money in the kitty – or just properties within a certain distance of the River Aire? And what about those towns and villages along the upper reaches of this 71-mile waterway which actually begins at Malham Tarn in the Yorkshire Dales? Are they liable as water moves downstream? Basic geography shows that flooding needs to be considered in the context of entire river catchment areas as water flows downstream – natural defences are as important as physical barriers.

Third, the Minister presumes that the answer to every problem is to ask taxpayers to make a greater contribution. With the Chancellor already using council tax as a ‘cash cow’ to mask under-investment in adult social care – town halls can impose a two per cent levy – Ms Truss would, if she was a true Conservative, be fighting her corner, and demanding spending efficiencies elsewhere, before advocating yet another stealth tax like this.

As this column made clear many months before the floods engulfed the country, Ms Truss came to public prominence because of her think-tank research and work in the field of education. She was surprised – and disappointed – to be given the Defra brief when her Eurosceptic predecessor Owen Paterson was fired. And, with every utterance, she has shown little empathy for the countryside, farmers or those victims of flooding who are paying a heavy price for the failure of successive governments to invest in new infrastructure.

This is why I say ‘no’ to the flood levy without alternatives at least being explored – not least whether part of the UK’s overseas aid budget should be used, for now, to assist flooding victims here.

PUTTING to one side the debate about whether Britain’s best interests are served by the EU, or not, the billet-doux delivered to Richmond Towers by the Britain Stronger In Europe organisation was revealing because it did not name-check, or feature, a single frontline politician of any persuasion.

It was aimed at young families and there was a striking number of case studies featuring female businesswomen who believe that Yorkshire’s future should be in the Europe. The one exception was Tory peer Karren Brady, better known for her role on The Apprentice, who warned that Britain will lose jobs if the country leaves the EU.

What does this tell you? It reveals the level of mistrust over Europe – and why the political establishment faces the fight of its life if it is to win the argument.

IT looks like the news management team at the Department of Work and Pensions have lost the plot...they sent out a bylined piece from Ros Altmann, the Pensions Minister, on January 22 which began like this: “I want to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy New Year...”

Given Baroness Altmann is a national authority on this subject, and has written with great authority on many occasions for this newspaper, the piece on assistance for OAPs in cold weather – sent when the temperatures started to rise significantly – lacked so much substance, and authenticity, that I don’t believe it was even sent to the Minister for approval.

I didn’t realise the DWP was in a position to waste so much time and money.

TALKING of public money going to waste, why did UK Sport give £63,000 to help Lord Coe’s campaign to become the president of world athletics, a sport bereft of credibility because of doping scandals? This is money that could have gone towards leisure centre opening hours.

It doesn’t end here. A diplomatic telegram sent to British embassies on May 21 signed ‘Hammond’ – Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond – instructed ambassadors: “We request ALL posts to lobby on behalf of Lord Coe for the presidency of the IAAF.”

This is one race Lord Coe can’t win. If he says he didn’t know about Russia’s industrial-scale doping when IAAF vice-president, he clearly wasn’t being very observant – even while organising the London Olympics. If, however, it emerges that he had some inkling, and turned a blind eye, his career in athletics will be finished.

Either way, I would have thought that the UK Sport – and the Foreign Secretary – had more pressing priorities.