“The graph on the wall at the Environment Agency Community Hub said it all. Freak weather events ever more frequent and river levels, on average, getting ever higher.
After storms Ciara and Dennis and with yet more rain since on the saturated Dales, downstream businesses have spent weeks under water and people living along the river have been stressed as they keep on constant guard.
Thanks must go to City of York Council staff who worked day and night to build the resilience for the city. While communications could have been improved, so far for the most part York has been kept safe. The Viking Recorder has provided vital data to help predict the worst of what is to come downstream, while experts in the Incident Room at the Environment Agency have skilfully mitigated the worst effects of flooding for many, although not all.
As I gathered residents and businesses last Friday night, and listened to concerns, the stories echoed those of four years ago. The crime was that for some nothing had moved forward.
First, the upper river catchment needs managing and tough decisions need to be made. For example, heathers are still burnt on moorlands to accommodate grouse shooting. This depletes the soil and vegetation, while also releasing carbon into the atmosphere. If the uplands alone were managed differently there would be a 20 per cent reduction in water run-off. According to research, this means 40cm less water peaking in York.
‘Slow the flow’ schemes, planting vegetation and trees, and holding water, where necessary, further reduce the volume of water in York. Relatively cheap solutions upstream not only hold water back, but prevent the need for higher and higher barricades in the city. This has got to happen.
But I have to say, there is no excuse for not putting schemes in place for the community, homes and businesses here in the city. We need a long term sustainable plan to take the stresses away from the River Ouse and for that matter, residents. The procurement process of the Environment Agency is not working, it is costly to residents and fails to make the money work the smartest way.
This summer, the COP26 international climate change conference will be held in Scotland. The world will be looking on as politicians and environmentalists battle for our planet to avoid an environmental meltdown. Floods in Indonesia, washing away whole communities, and fires in Australia, wiping out whole habitats, give this conference ever more urgent importance.
The UK is responsible for contributing just one per cent to the planet’s carbon footprint, but when you follow the supply chains, and realise the volume of goods shipped and flown from the mega-polluting nations, we see our role in destroying our planet is much greater. Likewise the UK ships our waste, including plastics, for others to dispose of as our oceans accommodate ever-growing new floating plastic islands. The UK has simply outsourced pollution.
Stopping and mitigating these damaging practices must be a central focus globally, nationally and locally. The building of new roads and airport capacity by this Government is just fuelling the climate crisis. This is why the post-Brexit trade agreements matter. They will be our global levers for putting our planet’s needs first.
Parliament is still waiting for the Trade Bill to be debated. In my role of Shadow Employment Rights Secretary, I am particularly eager to ensure that workers’ rights are protected and advanced, however we must also secure high environmental standards and reject suggestions of compromise.
As COP26 seeks to advance global climate mitigation, I believe York could be the UK’s model of sustainability. A lot would have to change first. Labour has already set out the challenge of slashing pollution in the city, and with our radical transport policies, we could do a lot more. The council must take recycling far more seriously, and everyone must be supported to live more sustainably. As with last Lent, I will be taking the plastic challenge again of not purchasing any plastics.
We all have to live more sustainably and we need politicians to wake up to the urgency of the challenge. Labour declared a Climate Emergency, we have witnessed the consequences this week, and are now eager to secure a radical plan for York and the country. Why not join us on this journey?”
Rachael Maskell MP
This is published as a direct copy of the column which first appeared in the York Press and can be viewed here.