Leeds City Council leader: Time to end this flood of despair by putting Yorkshire first

Flooding in Kirkstall Road.  PIC: Bruce Rollinson

Flooding in Kirkstall Road. PIC: Bruce Rollinson

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The Christmas 2015 Yorkshire floods will be remembered most by the thousands of people whose homes and businesses have been ruined.

As the storms subside, the attention of the national media and, no doubt, senior ministers will switch to other matters. It will take much longer for people to pick up the pieces here in Leeds and Yorkshire.

This week I’ve seen for myself the damage to the fabric of buildings, carpets, keepsakes, machinery, and the like, and the financial crisis that so many now face, especially at this time of year when money is tight.

The psychological damage is awful too once your home or business has been inundated, with the risk of further events haunting people when the heavy rain returns.

We will continue to do everything we can to help people who have been severely affected and have already set up a hardship fund for households to help with recovery costs and temporary accommodation. We are also providing council tax and business rates relief for those residents and businesses in urgent need and will work with the government scheme to provide further support over the coming weeks.

Could all of these floods have been avoided? Probably not. Some of them? Most definitely. The fact is that we told government that Leeds city centre was at high risk four years ago when our flood defence scheme was cancelled. We are the third largest city in the UK, with a city centre economy that acts as the powerhouse of the northern economy, but that cut no ice with those decision makers. I’d like to take them round the city centre businesses and the manufacturers along the Kirkstall Road and ask them that question again. The city of London is rightly protected by the Thames flood barrier, and a £279m scheme was recently approved for the south east, so why not Leeds? With such ‘unprecedented’ events becoming more frequent, I question whether a 16% cut in Defra spending over the last five years in Yorkshire is sensible or sustainable, at a time when London’s spend has increased. That cut meant Hebden Bridge was flooded for the third time in as many years. With the cost of the recent floods being put in the billions, surely a rethink is needed and Leeds and Yorkshire should get the protection we deserve.

Adversity often brings out the best in people and the response to the crisis in Leeds was inspiring. We didn’t have to force our council workers to come in from Boxing Day onwards; many of them volunteered because they take great pride in our city. They were joined by an army of volunteers from Kirkstall to Otley who helped us get the city open for business within 24 hours of the floodwaters receding. The emergency services were as usual excellent, and the local media provided a public service of their own with vivid and brilliant coverage. It is times like this that give you a sense of civic responsibility, pride and duty that no national organisation and media outlet can replicate. That’s why devolution is so important. Irrespective of party politics, if local people had been in charge of these areas of public spending over the last two decades we would have had very different flood defences and public transport in place by now. These mistakes and missed opportunities cannot continue.

When the ministerial visits subside, it is local councils, voluntary groups and the local media that will remain to take responsibility. All of these are at risk in the next few years. The local institutions that care most about this wonderful part of the world are slowly being eroded. The £200m cut to Leeds and similar cuts to come make it harder and harder for vital public services to be protected. Councils are losing expertise in flood management, highways engineering and bridge repairs, as well as people on the ground to clean the streets, repair the roads and make the care visits. Local newspapers and TV and radio stations are operating with fewer journalists. Voluntary groups are losing the grants that allow them to galvanise that army of volunteers. This erosion of our civic institutions has got to stop and in 2016 here’s three things that government must do to make the tide turn.

First, give us the flood defences we need and deserve as an economic powerhouse in Yorkshire and make sure the review of flooding provides a comprehensive response to the problem. I rather doubt that Oliver Letwin, who is leading that review, has the full confidence of all communities in the north in understanding the full range of issues. Secondly, replace your warm words about local media with practical measures that will make a difference to the public service they provide. Lastly, give the Leeds City Region the devolution deal that lets us get on with giving taxpayers a better deal. We’ve shown we can do three times better than Whitehall in running public services, so let’s get on with it. The report that the Treasury was questioning whether the people of Yorkshire deserved the same support as other flooded communities beggars belief. Here’s a New Year’s resolution for Whitehall: if it’s good enough for London, then it’s good enough for Yorkshire.