The Coronavirus crisis has brought out the best of our formidable Barnsley community spirit. I’ve heard truly heart-warming stories about the volunteers who have gone above and beyond to support friends and neighbours. The volunteers who are collecting shopping and medications for those who are shielding in their village. The women at ‘For the Love of Scrubs’ who have produced PPE for the front-line. The pub landlord who has cooked hundreds of meals for vulnerable residents. These are just a few examples of the extraordinary character that exemplifies our coalfield communities.
It’s the same community spirit that I saw in abundance during the floods last November. Across South Yorkshire and here in Barnsley – in Lundwood, Darton, Low Valley – our communities were under water. In response, Barnsley folk did what they do best – rallied around and supported those in need. Sadly, there are some residents who are still flooded out of their homes; who lost valuable possessions in the floods; who live in a state of constant anxiety about what next winter will bring.
Both as the local MP and as the Mayor, I’ve been fighting for those communities that were battered by floods last November. I’ve pushed for an emergency flooding summit to bring together Local Authorities, central government, the Environment Agency, Yorkshire Water and flood management experts in order to formulate a plan for flood defences in South Yorkshire and across the North of England. I’ve pushed the Environment Agency to consider proactive measures to reduce flooding risk, including the dredging of rivers and canals. And I’m campaigning for our region to get its fair share of the funding that has been promised, setting out the case for an investment programme worth over £270 million that would protect 10,300 homes and 2,800 businesses.
We’ve heard warm words from the Government. In the Spring Budget, the Chancellor pledged over £5 billion to improve the country’s flood defences. But, so far, we’ve not seen the detail nor the level of commitment to what is a vitally important issue for our local communities. Time and again I’ve asked the Government, in Parliament, to establish the flooding summit promised to South Yorkshire by the Prime Minister. Although energies are, rightly, consumed by responding to the Coronavirus crisis, the Prime Minister and his Government must stick to their word and deliver the promised summit.
How we rise to the challenge of flooding is about far more than providing sandbags when the riverbanks burst. We must put flood prevention as well as flood defences at the heart of our environmental and economic policies and our response must be bold and creative. That means ensuring that flooding mitigation betters informs the planning process when it comes to where houses and businesses are build. It means using innovative urban tree-planting strategies to reduce the risk of floods. It means putting sustainability and tackling the climate emergency at the heart of our future economic plans. And it means giving Metro Mayors and Local Authorities additional powers to deliver flood mitigation in their areas.
I’ve written extensively about what our post-COVID future will look like; the need to rebuild our businesses and communities that have been battered by the disease. But rebuilding is not enough. There can be no return to a failed status quo, we must seize the opportunity to renew our economy and society to build a fairer, more equal country. We must also realise the chance to do things differently, starting with our flood defence and prevention.