York Press column – Flooding tests our Yorkshire grit
March 4, 2020
Our city has now endured over two weeks of flooding and high water levels, thankfully escaping the worst impacts that have hit other parts of Yorkshire and the country, unlike in 2015.
The torrent has of course been hugely distressing for those directly affected, and disruptive for us all, but so far the extensive readiness measures, from the 6000 sandbags and 25 pumps deployed by the Council to the smooth operation of the improved Foss Barrier, have kept the floodwaters largely at bay.
I join all York residents in being deeply grateful for the sheer hard graft put in by staff at the Environment Agency, City of York Council, and Yorkshire Water, and from my own visits to the sandbag line at Naburn, and the Environment Agency’s York area Incident Room, I believe the situation is being handled calmly and professionally across the city.
We need to continue this calm professionalism as water levels fall and the clean-up commences, to ensure we make clear York is very much ‘open for business’. I was concerned to see the cancellation of the ‘Battle Spectacular’ re-enactment section of the Jorvik Viking Festival on Saturday 22nd, and I know residents want to see our community back to its vibrant best as soon as possible.
In recent days, I have been working both to address specific neighbourhood concerns, and to press national government to ensure our city gets the support it needs. For instance, I have written formally to the Chief Executive of Yorkshire Water requesting they improve the Naburn village drainage system, and have also tabled parliamentary questions to the Environment Secretary George Eustice to clarify what funding help is available for the Council, so that this prolonged emergency readiness period does not leave our local authority out of pocket.
Ministers were quick to activate the Bellwin scheme, which allows local authorities addressing flooding to claim back 100% of additional costs they have incurred, and I was glad to see the government trigger the Flooding Recovery Framework in addition, unlocking financial support for flooded households and businesses, including grants per household and business, a council tax discount, and business rates relief. I have also signed a cross-party letter from MPs to the ‘big 4’ banks, requesting they are as flexible as possible with customers whose lives have been disrupted by flooding.
The latest inundation is firm evidence of the necessity of the government proceeding at pace to implement the Conservative manifesto commitment to increase flood defence funding to £4 billion over the next 5 years. The recent commitment to build the world’s best supercomputer to ensure better prediction of future extreme weather events is welcome evidence of long-term thinking on this subject.
While understandably preoccupied with York’s challenges, it is also impossible for us to ignore the deep ongoing distress in other parts of the county like Calderdale, that have now been badly flooded twice in 5 years. There has been very significant investment in flood defences nationwide since 2015, with £2.6 billion spent on protecting 260,000 homes, but it is also true that important schemes in our region, such as the £30 million plan for Mytholmroyd, remain unfinished, and as a result there is understandably deep anger which the government has a duty to address head-on.
Given West Yorkshire’s plight, it is only right that the Environment Secretary has agreed to convene a special Yorkshire summit on the impact of repeated flooding on our region, to bring together central government, local authorities, the Environment Agency and local MPs, which I hope to attend soon to help hammer out some firm solutions. I welcome recent proposals for a new National Flood Resilience Centre in the Humber area, and I would expect the government to give serious thought to backing this initiative with funding.
Alongside managing our rivers, we must continue to safeguard other aspects of our local environment, like development-threatened Askham Bog. The developer having appealed the plan to the Housing Secretary after unanimous refusal by the Council’s planning committee, I am now urgently seeking a meeting with the Housing Secretary in London to press him to veto the appeal. As recent weeks have shown, our natural environment is too important to take for granted.