DAVID CAMERON waded into a deepening political row when his fleeting visit to disaster-hit York today was overshadowed by claims that his Government had let down the North over the funding of flood defences.
The Prime Minister, who was greeted by hecklers, was left on the back foot after Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds Council, claimed the disaster was “preventable” and would not have been allowed to occur in the South.
Though the Tory leader dismissed the North-South divide allegation, Mr Cameron is facing a tide of public anger after it emerged that the Government dug deep last December to finance a £300m scheme to protect the Thames Valley after previously rejecting a £180m scheme to safeguard 4,500 homes in Leeds city centre, one of the areas worst affected by the Christmas deluge.
As Mr Cameron struggled to regain the political initiative, top accountants KPMG said the total cost to Britain of this year’s floods, and clean-up operation, could reach £5.8bn – and this is before the impending Storm Frank unleashes even more misery on the weather-beaten North in the coming hours.
One woman shouted “No more cuts to public services” as the Prime Minister spoke to a team from the Scarborough mountain rescue team who had deployed a dinghy to help rescue residents from submerged streets in the heart of York where the filthy floodwater is receding after some of the worst floods in the city’s history.
However Mr Cameron insisted that Yorkshire was receiving more than its fair share of funding after visiting a York sandbag filling station where he hailed the “amazing” response of the emergency services and those volunteers who responded to appeals for assistance which were posted on social media when telephone lines were cut off.
“We spend more per head of the population on flood defences in the North than we do in the South,” he maintained. “But the key thing is to spend the money where it’s needed Here in Yorkshire, for instance, we’ve spent £100m on flood defences since I became Prime Minister. We plan to spend, in this Parliament, an extra £280m, so almost three times as much again.”
Rejecting claims that he had presided over a 20 per cent cut in funding for flood defences, he said a forthcoming policy review would consider future investment – and whether existing resources were being spent wisely.
“We spent more in the last Parliament than the previous Parliament and we are going to spend even more in this parliament. So it is a rising budget - £2.3bn capital schemes that will make a real difference up and down the country,” he added. “As I say, though - let’s have a look and see if more needs to be done and whether the flood defences need to be made higher than they have already, and that’s exactly what we’ll look at.”
However the Prime Minister’s platitudes were greeted with dismay by council chiefs in Leeds who were disappointed that Mr Cameron did not visit the West Yorkshire city, one of the driving forces behind the so-called Northern Powerhouse, to witness its devastation at first hand.
In spite of impassioned pleas in Parliament in 2011 by MPs like Greg Mulholland, they remain that the Government pulled the plug on a major flood alleviation scheme for the whole of Leeds which was drawn up in response to the floods of 2007.
“I heard he was coming to York but I am disappointed he has not come to Leeds as well,” said the aforementioned Coun Blake as she reissued an invitation to the PM to visit Leeds.
“I would like to ask him to re-think the decisions that have been made about funding to protect vulnerable areas. We are beyond talking. We need action. The point is can you honestly imagine anyone letting the financial centre of London being put at risk.
“Questions are being asked already why so many people in areas in the North are being affected. There is an unequal distribution of resources.”
The war over words came as the clean-up operation continued across Yorkshire – Kirkstall Road, one of the main routes into Leeds, finally reopened yesterday after being turned into a sea of mud when the nearby river Aire flooded after rising rapidly on Boxing Day.
However, as the floodwater moved downstream, the busy A19 between Selby and Doncaster was left impassable at Chapel Haddelsey after it was submerged by torrents of muddy water and other detritus from the Aire while and communities like Cawood became surrounded by an ocean as the Ouse burst its banks.
Several hours after Mr Cameron’s VIP visit, Liz Truss, the Environment Secretary, appeared to hint at additional funding and said the Government’s six-year funding programme could be adjusted because the recent extreme weather was now “consistent with climate change”.
She added: “We do need to look at what’s happened in Cumbria, what’s happened in Lancashire, what’s happened in Yorkshire, because those great cities in the North need to be protected and I am determined to make sure they get the protection they need.”
Yet Ms Truss might rue her decision to become the first Minister to sign up to Chancellor George Osborne’s budget demands without offering sterner resistance – Justin Balcombe, KPMG’s UK head of general insurance management consulting, said the final bill will exceed the £3.2bn clean-up cost incurred across Britain in 2007 and is estimated to reach £5.8bn.
Meanwhile York flooding victim Chris Wardle was among those to tell Prime Minister that the communications meltdown in the ruined city was “like stepping back 100 years”.
The IT expert, who lives in a first floor flat in Skeldergate which has been repeatedly flooded, told Mr Cameron to raise his game following a growing political storm over the allocation of funding.
He said: “When I spoke to David Cameron I thanked him for his efforts with the relief, everyone is doing a sterling job. But he asked when it last happened and it was only in 2012 when we last flooded.
“Someone, from Prime Minister to the council, really needs to sort out flood defences in the city centre. Every time there is heavy rain parts flood. Everything we see now is reactive. The cost of insurance alone will be tens, if not hundreds, of millions of pounds. Think how that could be better spent.”
Mr Wardle, who is head of IT for a firm in the York, was critical of the impact of the floods on services people relied on for information as technicians battled to restore telephone landline and internet services 48 hours after an exchange was inundated.
With mobile phone signals severely affected, he added: “There is no broadband, there is no mobile phone or landline. We are cut off in terms of communication. This is 2015 and it’s like stepping back a hundred years.”
THE Archbishop of York has hailed the emergency services, and all those who have responded to the flooding disaster, as “modern day Good Samaritans”.
Dr John Sentamu’s tribute came after floodwaters engulfed the cellars of Bishopthorpe Palace, his official residence, which was spared further damage because of measures taken in the 13th century when it was constructed.
“It is no surprise, however, to see the people of York responding with tremendous spirit, resolve and generosity at this time to the plight of their flooded neighbours at this time,” he said. “You are our modern day Good Samaritans. I salute your readiness to respond to your neighbour’s need.”