York Floods: As the clean up commences, questions must be asked

York Flooding 1Over recent days the news has been full of images of York underwater. Hundreds of people have been evacuated from their homes after the city’s two rivers burst their banks, flooding houses, shops, businesses and threatening historical buildings. The River Ouse peaked at over 5 metres above its typical level, while the River Foss has hit record heights.

We of course owe a debt of gratitude to all the staff and volunteers from the City of York Council, the emergency services, Environment Agency, armed forces and voluntary organisations, for the hard work they have put in (and continue to do with the clean up) to try to minimise the impact of the floods and assist those affected. After the damage this has caused to our city we must now focus on helping residents and businesses through the cleanup. There are however questions that need to be answered including on the planned levels of investment in both flood defence schemes and maintenance of existing defences.

York flooding 2City of York Council has created dedicated webpages to support residents and businesses affected by flooding, and to help with the city’s recovery. The page is here and our local party has been posting regular updates here.

Going forward we must understand why the Foss barrier failed in the city, but there is also the bigger question about the importance we have attributed to flood defence.The starting point has to be to ask whether the planned £2.3 billion investment in new flood defences over the next six years, announced in December 2014, is sufficient. Given the events of recent days, there is a compelling case for more investment to make sure that existing flood defences, such as the Foss barrier, are kept in good working order so that they are ready for action when the need arises. And there needs to be a recognition that the planned capital investment will at the very least need to keep pace with building cost inflation.

I do welcome the statements from the government over providing funding to help York going forward, but with the major task ahead of us in terms of putting right the damage caused by these floods,  I will be looking for the offers of support from the government to be quickly backed up with financial detail.

The recent strengthening of the Leeman Road flood defences in York is an example of how we need to bolster defences to be better able to cope with the effects of climate change. It is also especially disappointing to see the government backtrack on a range of environmental policies that the Liberal Democrats fought for in government.

* Keith Aspden has been the Councillor for Fulford Ward in York since 2003 and for Fulford and Heslington Ward since 2015. Since 2019 he is the Leader of City of York Council, and the Liberal Democrat Deputy Chair of the LGA Fire Services Management Committee.

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  • I think it should be asked if Danny Alexander had any part in the cutting of flood defence funding after the coalition got into power. It was cut by the Treasury and he was the Chief Secretary at the time.

  • Flooding is or should be an intensely political issue, and I don’t just mean as a demonstration that climate change matters. It’s also about the unequal division of resources between the Home Counties and elsewhere. It’s also about business versus people. Floods are good for business, and they act to increase GNP, as consumers rush out to buy new goods in place of those which the waters wrecked. Perhaps that’s why Cameron, a “business-friendly” politician, has so far avoided promising any substantial new spending on flood defences. Perhaps that’s why we don’t need “business-friendly” politicians.

    Of course Lib Dems in Coalition must share responsibility for what the previous government did. However, if we spend the next five years trying to argue whether they made things less bad, made things more bad, or whatever, in respect of every single Coalition government decision, we will inevitably be arguing about a posturing competition between the erstwhile coalition partners, and we shall all get very bored with it. Let’s move on and talk about what should happen now!

  • Eddie Sammon 30th Dec '15 - 12:23am

    Funding for flood defences now need to be a big issue for Lib Dems to campaign for. Tim Farron is doing a great job on this.

    It helps people and it isn’t controversial. In future I think we need to be very careful about building more houses near river banks. I read thousands of years ago that humans used to plan for flooding and use flood plains to boost farming yields, but now we build houses on them.

    Melting ice caps also mean there is likely to be more of this. A big non-ideological issue to campaign on.

    I don’t mean to go for the “either” argument on housing, but I did read somewhere that no flood defence is 100% safe and we should be careful about where we build houses and business premises.

  • kushal kumar 30th Dec '15 - 2:34am

    Floods in some parts of UK in December 2015 is yet another instance to prove accuracy as also usefulness in the monumental predictions of this Vedic astrology writer in article – “Stressful times ahead for world economy in 2015 and 2016” – published in online magazine ( blog) astrologyweekly.com on 2 June 2014 , over 17 months from now. Readers may find that global economy was predicted to be impacted by one of the aspects of life obviously with negative consequence on economy was – “ Tsunamis in seas” which term also suggests heavy storm . Further , countries or regions likely to be impacted by the planetary energies or influences were pointed out with first letter with which its name begins. It was mentioned that “EU” which means one or more countries within European Union could be touched for impact. And within “EU” ( European Union ) , “E” which denotes England while “ U” means UK and “B” means Britain . There is no doubt about UK being covered in the prediction because within European Union , these symbolic details apply to UK alone. Thus UK or Britain are implied. As regards timing of tsunami or storm or heavy rains , these predictions from the article are more than clear:-
    “ These influences can be read to mean that a mild slide downwards in world economy is likely to be seen after about October 2014. Unwelcome influences on the world economy around April and thereafter suggest that discernible concerns could surface around April 2015 and onwards. Definite rumbles of distress will be heard. However , a major cause of concern may arise during November 2015 to July 2016 when benign Jupiter may begin to have a scattered influence”.
    The details in the prediction on record when pieced together lead to a clear and only destination –rains and floods in UK- during December 2015 having somewhat unkind impact on economy. It may , however , be said that these predictions indicative of likely trends not amounting to determinism are aimed at beforehand preparedness of the concerned people.

  • A Social Liberal 30th Dec '15 - 11:17am

    “Going forward we must understand why the Foss barrier failed in the city”.

    According to Look North it wasn’t activated in time – is this true?

  • Perhaps this might be a good question…. especially if you live in York..


  • Neil Sandison 30th Dec '15 - 2:06pm

    Tim Farron has consistently raised the issue of flooding in the North and is right to continue to put pressure on George Osbourne but we must ensure this conservative controlled government does not through the review we have welcomed kick this national problem into the long grass until the next time and the time after that .One of the issues often raised at local flood summits is the failure to maintain water courses and drainage channels. That continuing to raise the height of flood barriers in urban areas just pushes the problem further down stream .That water companies are not co-operating nor have a statutory responsibility to co-operate like councils .Should Counties and unitary authorities be able to levy CIL contributions from national builders to deliver sustainable and maintainable drainage systems .We need a national water grid utilising are river and canal systems to move water from high risk areas to low risk areas and reseviours .More up land planting of trees would also help .

  • Dave Orbison 30th Dec '15 - 3:18pm

    An interesting article in The Guardian from 2011 when the Coalition cuts flood defence spending for York and Leeds amongst other areas. Now there’s a question for the LibDems to ponder on – what did you say it was Danny – the responsible thing to do – in the interest of the nation? Really?


  • @Simon Shaw:- Yes, remarkably consistent. If you ignore the fact that funding was increasing in 2010 and then dropped by ~£100M. Only increasing again after the flooding in 2013. And that was extra money for repairs, as detailed on the graph itself.

  • @Simon Shaw
    Have you actually read the article you linked to?

    “In the first year of the coalition, he cut capital spending on flood defences by 27% year-on-year. That was despite the 2008 Pitt Review – a systematic analysis of major floods in 2007 – concluding that much more funding was needed. Funding had risen quickly under the Labour government, only to be slashed by Cameron.”

    All of this is very easily visible on the graph, which shows spending rising sharply for the three years up to 2010, then plummeting sharply the second the Tories and Lib Dems take office.

  • @Simon Shaw
    “It shows real terms spending under Labour of around £600m to £625m increasing slightly over their last two years (not three years) to around £700m. It was then held at about that level for the first year of the new Coalition Government, before falling back (not plummeting) to around £600m to £625m for the next 3 years.”

    You are rather overlooking the fact that Labour were still in power at the start of 2010/11 and hence determined the initial budget allocation for that year. In fact the 2010/11 increase – which you mistakenly attribute to the coalition – was a result of Labour’s 2007 spending review, as is made clear on page 6 here :-


    Far from “holding” spending at the same level for a year as you claim, the coalition cut spending just as soon as they practicably could i.e. as part of the Autumn 2010 review :-


    Incidentally, these things are subjective, but I think most people would agree that the £175.5m increase (i.e. 32%) increase in the annual budget that Labour presided over from 2008 to 2010 was actually pretty substantial, not “slight”. Likewise the £94.5m annual budget cut the coalition imposed in their first full year could be fairly described as a “plummet”.

  • @Simon Shaw
    Are you genuinely under the impression that government departments set annual budgets on a day by day basis? I think you’ll find that’s not how it works!

  • @Simon Shaw


    Saying someone did something “the second” they could simply means they did it as soon as they could – which the coalition did. It’s a phrase in common usage; you were not meant to take it literally, as if someone were standing next to Cameron with a stopwatch as he kissed hands.

  • Peter Watson 31st Dec '15 - 6:14pm

    @Simon Shaw “So when I said “It was then held at about that level for the first year of the new Coalition Government” I was right and you are wrong.”
    This particular debate over the pedantic interpretation of “the second the Tories and Lib Dems take office” seems like a pointless distraction from the important subject of the article.
    My impression is that there is agreement between you and Stuart on the important points that the coalition inherited from the previous government a budget and planned expenditure for the first year of government (and beyond), the new government did not cancel that spending part-way through that year on 7 May 2010, and later in 2010, when it had the opportunity to do so, the coalition government reduced spending for subsequent years.

    This was controversial at the time, e.g. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2010/nov/24/flood-defence-cuts-facts-spin, and from the February 2011 article linked previously: “In York, Lib Dem city council leader Andrew Waller said the failure to get funding for its £6.5m project had left people “very disappointed”.”.

    This is important because it directly affects the position that Lib Dems can take now. If Lib Dems in coalition supported the cuts in expenditure then they are as much to blame as the Tories and might be best advised to keep quiet now or retreat to the line that it was necessary because Labour crashed the economy. If Lib Dems opposed the cuts then this is a great opportunity to criticise the Tories for what they did.

  • Dave Orbison 1st Jan '16 - 10:18am

    Peter Watson – “Labour crashed the economy” No the global banking crisis did that triggered by the sub-prime mortgage debacle in the USA.

    The IMF, former Gov of BofE and OBR have made this clear in a number of statements and a fairly good analysis is given in the Huffington Post – see below. Of course this did not fit the Tory/LibDem narrative in 2010 and indeed ever since. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story.


    Most of us accept that global warming exists and that changes in our climate are taking place including more intense storms. Many of the recommendations from the Pitt study have not been put in place. Predictably just some of the cheap ones. Having commissioned a report that identifies what needs to be done and then simply walk away from it is nothing more that irresponsible and reckless. When identified flood protection schemes such as those for York and Leeds were ‘pulled’ the consequences were entirely foreseeable.

  • Peter Watson 2nd Jan '16 - 11:23am

    @Dave Orbison “Labour crashed the economy”
    Just to clarify, I was suggesting that from a party political point of view, retreating to that line was something that Lib Dems could do in the face of catastrophic flooding that might have been avoidable if spending cuts had not been made by the coalition. It would at least be consistent with the party line over the last few years, but that is not a line to which I subscribe (if I recall correctly Lib Dems and Tories were promising to match or exceed Labour spending plans up to around 2008 anyway).
    Paul Walter was quite prescient in 2011 (https://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-the-lib-dems-should-have-have-more-influence-over-the-environment-food-and-rural-affairs-23527.html) when he wrote

    As a party, the Liberal Democrats are currently running the risk of sharing the blame for things over which they have no influence. For a department with such a hugely broad remit such as DEFRA, you can take your pick of disasters waiting to happen: Food poisoning, an agricultural disease epidemic or widespread major flooding. By being part of the government in those circumstances we’ll get blamed. But we’ll play very little, if any, part in preventing or managing such disasters.

    Lib Dem involvement in detailed decisions might have been minimal but Lib Dem involvement in setting budgets might have been more significant. Certainly Danny Alexander was a prominent figure in the media. It will be interesting to see how the cost of rebuilding and repairing the current damage compares with the savings made by reducing the budget for flood protection projects. Potentially this could damage the #LibDemFightback in May elections, particularly if there are flood-damaged areas that saw their particular flood protection projects cancelled or delayed.

  • Peter Watson 3rd Jan '16 - 9:26am

    @Simon Shaw “the Government asserted in 2012 that all bar one of the Pitt recommendations had been implemented. …the Pitt Report may not go nearly far enough”
    I think there is more to the Pitt review than its 92 recommendations, most of which appear to be about organisational and procedural improvements. On the important aspect of investing in flood defences the review stated:

    It is not for this Review to consider precise levels of future flood defence spending. The Government has to reach decisions about the investment in this area in light of other priorities. Nevertheless, the Review welcomes the increase in funding announced by the Government in July 2007. Moreover, with the evidence of increasing risks from climate change and the additional challenges identified in this report, we believe it is sensible for the Government to plan on the basis of above inflation settlements in future Government spending rounds

    It is the cut in annual spending on flood defences by the Coalition government that is being criticised by many at the moment (as it was in 2011), and if the cost of repairs now exceeds the savings made then, those cuts would prove to be a false economy. The frequent references to flood damage in Yorkshire and Cumbria, where there are still Lib Dem MPs and councillors makes it important for the party to have a credible line on this.

  • Peter Watson 3rd Jan '16 - 9:43am

    There’s an interesting review from February 2014 of the implementation of recommendations from the Pitt review.
    In liberal (small l) terms, it’s notable that measures for individual property-owners and property developers often don’t take the necessary steps to protect themselves, believing instead that it is a role for the authorities.

  • Peter Watson 3rd Jan '16 - 9:58am

    Ooops, that last post makes even less sense than usual. Should have been:
    There’s an interesting review from February 2014 of the implementation of recommendations from the Pitt review (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-26176195). In liberal (small l) terms, it’s notable that individual property-owners and property developers often don’t take the necessary steps to protect themselves, believing instead that it is a role for the authorities.

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