A familiar feeling of dread hung over South Yorkshire with amber flood warnings issued across the region in recent weeks. Our communities were at action stations as residents began the arduous task of preparing to withstand the worst of the weather. Our Local Authorities, Emergency Services, Yorkshire Water, the Environment Agency and volunteers worked around the clock to prepare for Storm Christoph. Within 24 hours, gullies and drains were cleared, river levels were monitored, and 43,750 sandbags had been delivered to local residents – testament to the efforts of hundreds of staff and volunteers.
These warnings serve as a grave reminder of the continuing threat of flooding. Over a year on from the devastating floods of November 2019, residents of Lundwood, Darton, Low Valley, Kilnhurst, Fishlake and Bentley still endure the familiar fear of what winter will bring. I’ll never forget that November, arriving at Fishlake to scenes reminiscent of a disaster movie as our emergency services battled to save family homes. The Prime Minister turned up five days later and was soon whisked away by the General Election campaign. Some of the residents he left behind are still picking up the pieces.
Since those disastrous floods, I’ve developed a South Yorkshire Flooding Response Plan to rebuild our flood defences and protect residents and businesses. I’m determined that our communities will not be forgotten by central government, which is why we’ve identified 27 key priority schemes within our plan; schemes ranging from drainage works to large-scale flood defence schemes. Ours is a locally-led plan that, once complete, would have a transformative impact on residents and businesses. Fully funded, our plan will protect 10,300 homes and 2,800 businesses across the region; and mean residents in at-risk properties will sleep a little sounder. It is a practical demonstration of the power of devolution to improve the lives of people in South Yorkshire.
I’ve fought hard to secure investment for this vitally important programme. I’ve raised the issue of flooding in Parliament; brought reluctant government ministers to the table and left them in no doubt as to my commitment on this issue. Local leaders and I have committed £5.5 million of our own resources to kickstart nine of the priority schemes and last month I secured £80 million in new flood defence funding for South Yorkshire – including Darton and Lundwood – which represents a three-fold increase on previous flooding investment for South Yorkshire. Quite simply, this investment wouldn’t have been secured for Barnsley without me also serving as Mayor.
There is, of course, still some way to go until our plan is realised in full. It will take a further investment of £125 million to deliver our ambitious proposals – funding that I’m continuing to push the Government to deliver – and the projects themselves will take a while to be delivered. What’s more, cash alone won’t provide the solutions we need. Building our way out of this with concrete won’t work – we must work with nature preserving and expanding wetlands, moorland and forests. I’ve partnered with the Woodland Trust as part of an ambitious programme to plant millions of trees across the region, with flood prevention a key part of a plan that will also bring benefits for communities and help tackle the climate emergency.
There are no quick fix solutions or easy answers to issues that, in some cases have endured for decades. However, we have secured substantial investment and have a robust, achievable plan to spend it. I pledged in November 2019 that I would fight for our communities and that’s what I’ve done. Now we need central government to do the same.