Tom Richmond: The Minister out of her depth over flooding

Environment Secretary Liz Truss said the Rural Payments Agency was working "flat out" to pay claims as quickly as it could.
Environment Secretary Liz Truss said the Rural Payments Agency was working "flat out" to pay claims as quickly as it could.
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MY broadside last week against Environment Secretary Liz Truss, and her derisory response to the Cumbria floods, did prompt a resort of sorts from this most unimpressive of Ministers.

Within 24 hours, Ms Truss – educated in Leeds – had announced the creation of a task force to look at ways of reduce the impact of torrential rain there.

Wisely, it will be headed by Rory Stewart. Not only is a junior Defra minister and a MP for a Cumbrian constituency, but he has a track record for getting things done – he was the diplomat entrusted with maintaining the peace in provinces of Iraq following the Allied invasion of 2003.

What was most revealing was the observations of those who have had worked closely with Ms Truss. They too were unimpressed and believe the Minister, on being appointed to the post in July 2014, should have spent at least a month working incognito, without the presence of TV cameras or media advisers, on a farm to gain a better understanding of the challenges – and her policy brief.

They also advise that she spends a week in a flood-hit Cumbrian community this Christmas so she can see how vulnerable homes and businesses are being compromised by her reluctance to stand up to George Osborne, her mentor, and demand more money for those flood defence schemes put on hold.

After all, it was Hull North MP Diana Johnson who pointed out in the House of Commons the contradictory situation whereby those first-time buyers taking advantage of Government housing policies might not be able to afford building insurance because of soaring premiums. And then there’s the Institution of Civil Engineers which advises all new homes should be water-proofed with raised entrances and no air vents at ground level. It also suggests lime-based render to allow walls to damage quicker as well as the installation of water-tight doors.

In other words, every new planning application should be flood-proofed at the outset to reduce the risks. Does the Minister realise this – and the need for the Government to change its entire approach for the long-term?

Somehow, I doubt it while she is allowed to operate in a world of her own.

IT’S a good job next year’s Tour de Yorkshire is avoiding Leeds. If the peloton was heading here, it would probably be washed away in Northern Street if the cyclists can beat the city’s traffic jams.

This, for the record, is one the key access roads to Leeds Station and which has been flooding to varying degrees ever since I moved to Leeds 11 years ago.

Yet, in recent weeks, the problems have been even worse than usual as several inches of standing water gathers in a dip in the road and brings traffic to a standstill. Given the frequency of these occurrences, and the fact that the road provides access to one of the biggest commercial developments in the centre of Leeds, I’m surprised that the council has not done more to rectify the situation – it even took 24 hours for the authority’s very expensive road matrix signs to inform motorists of the latest closure.

After being passed to a third council PR officer in a day – don’t get me going on that issue – I finally obtained this reply of sorts. “Gully connections on the street have been checked and found to be working correctly and not blocked, so we have now referred the matter to Yorkshire Water,” said a spokesman unconvincingly.

Talk about buck-passing.

More than 10 years down the road, and Leeds City Council is no nearer to an answer to the drainage problems here – and in other parts of the city.

A practical and pragmatic council, headed by someone of the ilk of Welcome to Yorkshire boss Sir Gary Verity, would have resolved this before approving the new office development next to Northern Street. Yet this would have required a degree of joined-up thinking from a town hall which continues to be indifferent towards transport. And, before the authority blames the Government for funding cuts, these problems preceded David Cameron’s election in 2010.

IN its infinite wisdom, the Treasury decreed – erroneously – that claims Sports Direct staff were being paid less than the minimum wage did not warrant an urgent answer in Parliament. On this basis, could Chancellor George Osborne explain his definition of the word ‘urgent’? After all, he has put the advent of the National Living Wage at the centre of his campaign to become Prime Minister.

Fair play to John Bercow, the Speaker, for acceding to Labour’s request for a debate in which veteran backbencher Dennis Skinner highlighted the plight of workers at the under-fire retailer’s factory in his Bolsover constituency.

Tearing into the business morals of Mike Ashley who heads Sports Direct (and Newcastle United), Mr Skinner said: “He is a monster of a man that doesn’t even reply to MPs’ letters – I’ve sent him many.

“He’s got £6bn and is on the Sunday Times Rich List because he’s the type of man that will not take any notice of HMRC unless this Government really means business.” Is this the type of Scrooge-like businessman that Mr Osborne really wants to side with this Christmas in the Tory party’s One Nation Britain?

GIVEN next March is the centenary of Harold Wilson’s birth, I’m perplexed more Yorkshire MPs are not backing Barry Sheerman’s Early Day Motion calling for a statue of the last Yorkshire premier to be erected on the Parliamentary precinct. Having kept Britain out of the Vietnam war, and pioneered social mobility and aspiration for all, I’m surprised they are reluctant to spend £100,000 honouring Wilson who would stand head and shoulders above most of today’s political lightweights.

I WOULDN’T have begrudged the lifetime achievement accolade, the most prestigious trophy being handed out at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year jamboree in Belfast tomorrow night, going to Dame Mary Peters after she used her 1972 Olympic triumph to place sport at the heart of peace initiatives in the province. It’s a legacy that has never been given sufficient credit.

Yet it is fitting that this award goes to AP McCoy, A proud son of Northern Ireland, and champion jockey for 20 successive years in one of the toughest sports of all, his like will not be seen again – the sporting story of 2015 was the ‘champ’ being able to retire on his own terms rather than through injury.