It is now seven weeks since the devastating floods hit Leeds and nearby Calderdale on Boxing Day. I am sure it feels a lot longer for the businesses and people affected. The waters may have subsided, the clean up may be almost complete, but the pain is still clear to see on the faces of those who have built up great businesses and who know that the road to recovery will be a long and hard one.
We are working with other agencies to understand what exactly happened, and it is important not to jump to conclusions. It is clear that extreme rainfall on already saturated catchments led to record river levels. There is a plaque on the wall of Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills which records the water level in the great flood of 1866. This time it reached 4 ft higher.
Armley Mills under flood water. The windows in the foreground are on the first floor.
The aftermath has prompted a prominent and lively debate about city resilience. I am now having a few days off after what has been a hectic and difficult few weeks trying to get support to the businesses that have been affected. This provides an opportunity for reflection. I have set out here some of my own personal observations on what we can do to prevent and respond to flooding.
Climate change is here to stay. Extreme rainfall events will be the main impact in the UK. We must invest more in mitigation measures and better flood protection. We currently have a £4om scheme on site which will protect Leeds city centre, but the decision not to fund the scheme that would have protected the entire River Aire catchment in Leeds now looks very shortsighted. There is a palpable and genuine anger in Leeds about this. This was reflected by the Yorkshire Evening Post in what has been hailed globally as a great campaigning front page (and which demonstrates the real value of local media).
Protect businesses as well as homes.
We need a review of guidance and criteria for prioritising flood protection. This currently values protecting homes way above protecting businesses and major economic centres. As a result protecting Tewksbury was appraised as a higher priority than protecting Leeds, the UK’s second financial centre. Following lobbying from Leeds City Council and Leeds MPs from all parties, Government has now committed £3m of funding to investigate the full Leeds scheme. The ministerial statement made on 27th January 2016 by Rory Stewart MP was not only positive because of the announcement of the funding for this feasibility work. It was also significant that it also included recognition that the current criteria for assessing flood schemed needs to be reviewed to ensure the economic importance of places like Leeds is captured.
Prioritise cities and towns, not farmland and grouse moors.
There have been calls for a review of the regulatory and incentive based regime for agricultural and upland land management. We need to make more space for water. The current system incentives the creation of drainage channels exacerbating run off, and does not encourage the slowing down and storage of water, as was set out in this article by George Mombiot. There is also a need to look at the role of water company assets. In some places, such as the upper Calder Valley, reservoirs could play a valuable role in flood storage.
Devolution to enable cities and city regions to invest in infrastructure and respond to environmental shocks.
This could include the concept of “resilience bonds” which has been developed in the US. We also need to enable local areas to develop the solutions that are right for their areas. The original flood scheme planned for Leeds would have resulted in two metre high walls along our historic waterfront, with a hugely detrimental effect on the quality of place and regeneration. We came up with a better and highly innovative solution: lower flood walls and moveable weirs to reduce the level of the water. In places like Pickering and Bellingham there has been innovation in use of natural features to slow water down. And devolution is also important in giving local areas the flexibility to respond quickly to environmental shocks. Our Business Growth Programme, part of our devolution deal, enabled our Local Enterprise Partnership to make £5million available to support flood affected businesses to reinvest in premisses and machinery.
Recognise the important role of local authorities.
The response to the Boxing Day floods in Leeds has demonstrated the role of local authorities as the fourth emergency service. There has been brilliant leadership by Councillors and fantastic work by Council officers. They were visible on the ground, providing support to people and businesses, cleaning up, and bringing communities together. And the value of public service has been shown time and time again. For example cleansing colleagues have worked in grim conditions to clean out premises, museums colleagues shoveled by hand over a foot of sludge from Leeds Industrial Museum, and the many Parks and Countryside colleagues who turned up at work to volunteer on their week off. And our Economic Development Team’s links with businesses has been invaluable in getting support to them quickly (we have already provided over £1 million of financial support to flood affected businesses). And the Council has been an important catalyst for building community level resilience, for example through the Team Kirkstall volunteer clean up initiative, or through community based resilience schemes, such as flood forums, flood wardens, and measures to enable local deployment of signs and sandbags by communities.
Details of how Leeds City Council can support flood affected business here.