Tom Richmond: Stonewalling won’t help us defend against floods

Elizabeth Truss pictured in January this year in Mytholmroyd following the Boxing Day floods. (Picture Tony Johnson).
Elizabeth Truss pictured in January this year in Mytholmroyd following the Boxing Day floods. (Picture Tony Johnson).
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IF Theresa May wants to make her mark in the North following the post-Brexit Tory political storm, she can begin by calling an immediate halt to the Government’s stonewalling over new flood defences.

Her predecessor, David Cameron, could not have been clearer when he finally responded to The Yorkshire Post’s open letter on flooding that was published one month after homes and businesses across the region were left submerged last December.

Mr Cameron wrote to this newspaper on March 22 and said his government was “focused on helping people of Yorkshire get their homes, businesses and communities back up and running, as well as learning lessons to ensure Yorkshire can be better protected from flooding in future”.

Without this newspaper galvanising public and political opinion after parts of York, Leeds, the Calder Valley and other communities were left in ruins, the Government’s response would have been even more inadequate – as exemplified by Mr Cameron’s cringe-worthy photo-call by the River Ouse.

Yet the tone of most recent Parliamentary exchanges, overshadowed by the handover of power, reveals how Ministers had returned to their previous default policy position when it comes to flood defences – stonewalling.

Even compliant Tory MPs, steadfast in their support for beleaguered Ministers like the then Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss when The Yorkshire Post was exposing Government double standards and the watering down of previous commitments to Leeds, appear to be having doubts.

Take the most recent Commons Environment Questions. First out of the blocks was Calder Valley Tory MP Craig Whittaker who asked Ms Truss if Defra would release “information on all water flows” to help those community groups looking to plant more trees, and build upland dams to protect downstream towns such as Hebden Bridge.

The Minister, I’m afraid, dodged the question by saying more information was made public during the floods. “For example, there were 19.5 million hits on our flood information service website. What I want to do is make even more information available to the public,” said Ms Truss as she stonewalled her colleague.

Next up was Elmet and Rothwell MP Alec Shelbrooke. The Conservative wanted to know what long-term plans were being put in place to protect low-lying villages, such as Methley, Mickletown, Allerton Bywater and Woodlesford, in his constituency.

Ms Truss said Defra was working on “an overall plan for the River Aire catchment”. Good news – but she then added this caveat: “That will form part of our national flood resilience review, which we will be announcing shortly.” In other words, she’s playing for time.

Back came Mr Whittaker. He called for an update on the Prime Minister’s statement to Parliament on April 27 when Mr Cameron said the government was looking to secure insurance cover for businesses in flood-hit areas.

This time Rory Stewart, then deputy to Ms Truss, replied. Though discussions with the British Insurance Brokers’ Association were ongoing, he implied that “investment in flood defences” was the best solution. “The problem on commercial insurance is, of course, that different businesses have different attitudes towards interruption payments and excesses,” he warned.

Stonewalling – or yet another of Mr Cameron’s ‘no ifs, no buts’ promises being less than watertight?

Then Shipley MP Philip Davies, mindful of the flooding damage in places like Apperley Bridge, used business questions to call for a debate – or a full statement from the Environment Secretary. He revealed that “many people are still not back in their homes” and “many of the flood defences required” to prevent a future disaster “have not been put in place”.

Commons leader Chris Grayling, Mrs May’s campaign manager and now Transport Secretary, did promise to raise these concerns with Ms Truss – but ducked the call for a debate.

Shame on him. These are three Conservative MPs who were loyal to Mr Cameron’s Ministers after the floods – and who clearly feel let down by less than water-tight assurances and promises.

I welcome these Damascene conversions, but I’m afraid more homes and businesses will be wrecked in future floods unless the region’s politicians can secure concrete commitments.

Together with every MP, town hall chief executive and council leader, they should come together and draw up a new flooding strategy for Yorkshire ready to put in the new Prime Minister’s in-tray.

After all, Mrs May’s Maidenhead constituency – regularly damaged in the past when the Thames burst its banks – is now protected by a new flood channel.

If it’s good enough for the Home Counties, it’s good enough for the North.

SEVEN days ago, I revealed how John Prescott urged Cabinet colleagues to “do the brave thing” and back Tony Blair’s judgment over the Iraq invasion.

Within 24 hours, the former Deputy Premier used his Sunday Mirror column to apologise, denounce the war as “illegal” and complain that intelligence reports were based on what amounted to “tittle-tattle, not hard evidence”.

At least the Hull East MP has accepted his “fair share of blame”. Yet, after revealing in his memoirs that it was “the brave thing” to back the war, just why did no one – least of all Lord Prescott who, believe it or not, was one of the less gung-ho Ministers – demand the Attorney General’s legal guidance in full?

By convention, Cabinet Ministers are privy counsellors. They’re entitled to such guidance. Why did they not seek it? Each and every member of the Blair government at the time owes the country, and the families of the 179 UK soldiers killed in Iraq, a personal explanation so such a basic dereliction of duty never happens again.