Rachel Reeves: Keeping up the pressure over flood measures

THE devastating floods that swept through our community at the end of 2015 have left a permanent mark on Leeds Industrial Museum.

Floods in Kirkstall Road, Leeds, on Boxing Day 2015.

There is a small red plaque on the wall at Armley Mills to show just how high the torrential rain pushed the water level, leaving parts of the historic mill under eight feet of water.

The fact the commemorative plaque is about three feet higher than one below it that marks the high-water point of the catastrophic floods of 1866 shows just what a remarkable recovery that both the re-opened museum and the city have made.

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It is just over a year since the Boxing Day floods wreaked havoc on thousands of homes and businesses in Leeds, Calderdale and York.

Thanks to the outstanding work of the emergency services, local councils and volunteers, no lives were lost through Storm Eva.

There was an amazing community spirit in places like Kirkstall and other flood-hit areas, with many people turning out to offer support and help with the clean-up operation.

But the direct economic impact of the floods stands at a phenomenal £456m, according to a review by the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, the Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership and other groups.

More than 4,000 homes and 2,900 businesses across the region were flooded. Families were forced from their homes, and businesses in my constituency of Leeds West are still struggling to get insurance.

We all saw the heartache and stress of those hit by the floods. Many are still picking up the pieces.

There are now two main priorities – to help those flood-hit businesses and households get back on their feet and to do our best to protect against floods in future.

Recently, the Government produced its long-awaited National Flood Resilience Review which looked at how flood-risk areas like Leeds, York and the Calder Valley might be protected in future.

There was barely a mention of Leeds, although the Government did promise to invest £2.5bn on anti-flood schemes across the country by 2021, including £35m to improve protection for Leeds.

In Yorkshire, £24m has been secured in the last year to repair damaged flood defences with £1.8m earmarked for Leeds. More than 600 repair projects have been completed already.

A further £3.8m is in the pipeline to repair damage to the Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme that will give businesses and households between Leeds railway station and Thwaite Mills better flood protection from the River Aire and Hol Beck.

The first phase of the £50m project – one of the largest in the country – will protect more than 3,000 homes and 500 businesses, as well as safeguard vital transport and telecoms links.

In October, I met Floods Minister Thérèse Coffey when our delegation of Leeds MPs and council leaders secured a pledge from her that the second phase will go ahead. That is an important commitment and I will continue to press the Minister to make sure the work happens and the project does not get delayed by red tape.

Leeds City Council is helping businesses hit by the floods in areas like Kirkstall. In the last 12 months, around 140 businesses in Kirkstall have benefited from a total of £1.77m from various government, council and Local Enterprise Partnership schemes. The money has helped safeguard more than 500 jobs.

But many companies still face an uphill struggle to get affordable insurance in the aftermath of Storm Eva.

I have continued to highlight this issue with the Government and referred cases to the Association of British Insurers (ABI) and the British Insurance Brokers’ Association (BIBA) to ask for their help.

This month, BIBA announced a new commercial insurance scheme that will also include flood cover for many premises in flood-risk areas.

The scheme aims to help businesses find flood insurance based on a number of factors, rather than solely the flood risk they face.

With the prospect of more heavy rain this winter, it is vital that work continues to help businesses get affordable insurance and that efforts continue on providing long-term flood defences.

But we must also ensure that temporary defences can be deployed as quickly as possible when they are needed.

Sadly, it is impossible to guarantee that Leeds, York and other high-risk areas will never be flooded again.

Through a combination of long-term defences and environmental work to hold more of floodwater upstream, we can work towards a solution to protect homes and businesses.

But the Government needs to be doing more to make sure that our city and our region 
is protected against future floods.

I will be doing all I can to hold Ministers to account in 2017 and ensure these vital flood defences are in place as swiftly as possible.

* Rachel Reeves is the MP for Leeds West.