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Praise and reproaches as the north endures deluge

30 December 2015


Calamity: members of the emergency services examine a collapsed bridge, in Tadcaster, on Wednesday morning 

Calamity: members of the emergency services examine a collapsed bridge, in Tadcaster, on Wednesday morning 

THE floods that have forced thousands from their homes in the north of England are a reminder of the fragility of humanity in the face of the ungovernable forces of nature, the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said this week.

After visiting “heart-rending scenes” in York, Dr Sentamu told Radio 5 on Tuesday that, far from shaking his faith, the impact of natural disasters “creates a bit of humility”. “We can arrogantly assume that we are the masters of the universe,” he said. “Nature . . . is to be treated with great respect. . . We are not above it. . . There is a lot of energy on our planet, and that energy sometimes cannot be harnessed whatsoever.”

His visit last year to the islands of Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji, where some islands had been completely submerged, was evidence of global warming, he said. “We have contributed to some of all this stuff.”

Thousands of people were moved from their homes in York, Leeds, Manchester, and surrounding areas this week, after heavy rainfall caused rivers to burst their banks and entire streets to be submerged. In Lancashire, every river was at a record high. Across the north over the past week more than 6700 homes have flooded.

In Littleborough, in the diocese of Manchester, where the River Roch burst its banks, prompting the evacuation of 100 homes, St Barnabas’s sheltered 20 care-home residents on Saturday. The Vicar, the Revd Ian Bullock, said on Tuesday that the response to his request for supplies had “sky-rocketed”.

On Sunday and Monday night, he joined others in giving out food parcels in the town, including helpings from big pots of stew. He had been contacted by “countless volunteers. . . The community spirit has been absolutely phenomenal.”

In Salford, where hundreds of people were evacuated on Boxing Day, St Clement’s, Lower Broughton, was flooded. It is one of seven churches planning to start providing shelter for the homeless this month, and there are hopes that it can be made ready in time.

The Archdeacon of Salford, the Ven. David Sharples, said on Tuesday that many of the local households affected did not have contents insurance and were facing a “really difficult time”. The Salford Credit Union might have a part to play in helping in the recovery, he said.

In York, where Archbishop Holgate School was a rest centre, the Dean, the Very Revd Vivienne Faull, was preparing to do a “huge amount of listening” in the coming months. “It is going to take a very long time before some people can get back into their homes,” she said on Tuesday. It would be “a very difficult year, spiritually and emotionally, that will require us to continue to pray and to love one another”. There are reports that looters have targeting evacuated homes. 

“Huge swaths” of parishes in the Calder Valley were under water or affected by the floods, the diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales reported on Monday: areas included Mytholmroyd, Hebden Bridge, and Sowerby. Christ Church, Sowerby Bridge, was open to people in need of shelter, and was used as an office by Holly Lynch, the MP for Halifax, on Monday.

The three bishops of Blackburn diocese issued a joint statement on Sunday reporting that the floods, following hard on the heels of earlier deluges, had caused “untold hardship for many as they struggled to defend their homes against the unprecedented rising water levels”. The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, tweeted pictures from Whalley, where the army was deployed to help.

The leader of Rochdale council, Richard Farnell, spoke to the Manchester Evening News this week of a “truly horrendous few days”. Waters sweeping through the town centre were four feet deep at the height of the flooding. The Archdeacon of Rochdale, the Ven. Cherry Vann, said on Tuesday that communities’ response evidenced the “good relationship” between churches and mosques. “When things get really tough, people come together. . . That is one of the good things that have come out of this.”

Climate change would mean that “this amount of rain is probably going to become more the norm,” she warned. “The time is right for a real overhaul of our flood defences.” The Church nationally would play an important part in “keeping this at the front of the Government’s agency and saying ‘People are vulnerable. This will happen again unless money is put in and proper defences put.’”

The devastation caused by the floods has led to recriminations among politicians about investment in prevention. The leader of Leeds City Council, Judith Blake, told the Yorkshire Evening Post that the damage was a “preventable disaster”, and pointed to the Government’s decision to scrap a flood-prevention scheme in 2011.

“The point is, can you honestly imagine anyone letting the financial centre of London being put at risk?” she said. “We have known since 2007 that the city is vulnerable. We put a scheme in place for the whole of the River Aire, but the Government gave back word on that funding. . . There is an unequal distribution of resources.”

The Prime Minister, Mr Cameron, was heckled during a visit to York on Monday. “It remains the case that such events, like those witnessed in this city, are unthinkable in London and much of the South East, where state-of-the-art flood defences have long been in place,” read the front-page editorial, “Indefensible”, in the Yorkshire Evening Post on Monday. “A Northern Powerhouse is nothing when it is under several feet of mucky water.” The newspaper reported that the Government had earmarked £297 million in December 2014 to pay for flood defences in the Thames Valley, but cancelled plans for the scheme in Leeds.

The Prime Minister said this week that the Government spent more per capita on flood defences in the north, and that spending on flood defences was rising, to £2.3 billion in the current Parliament. A flood-resilience review was already under way. “Clearly we should look again at whether there’s more we can do,” he said on Sunday. The accountancy firm KPMG estimates that the cost of flooding could reach £5.8 billion.

Communities were bracing themselves on Tuesday for further rainfall, with the arrival of “Storm Frank”. It has forecast the potential for "further significant flooding", particularly in Cumbria.

The army evacuated people in Tadcaster on Tuesday night after a bridge over the River Wharf collapsed. An Environment Agency spokesman warned of a "signficant risk to life". St Mary's, Tadcaster was flooded in a matter of minutes on Boxing Day, after the flood defences next to the church were breached. 

"Sad as it is, we need to remember it is only the stone and mortar that has been hit," wrote the Vicar of Tadcaster, the Revd Sue Sheriff, in a letter to parishoners on Sunday. "Our fellowship remains as strong as ever."

On Wednesday, after the collapse of the bridge, she described how the town had effectively been cut in two. It will now take around half an hour for people to drive from one side to the other and it could be a year and a half before the recovery is complete.

"So far, people have been going on adrenalin but we are now starting to see that this is going to be a long hard slog," she said. She had been "touched" by how many people had been concerned about St Mary's. 

"People keep asking me about what the community has done for the church and what the church has done for the community, but the point they miss is we are actually the same thing," she said. "Everybody in town asks 'how is our church?”. It's not two separate things; the two are one."

A candelight vigil will beheld on Sunday, with a local bus firm providing transport across the town. 

Storm Frank resulted in hundreds more evacuations and the loss of power for thousands. Worst affected was Scotland where the River Dee breached its banks and parts of Dumfries were submerged. In Weston-super-Mare the remains of Birnbeck Pier fell into the sea. 

The deputy chief executive of the Environment Agency, David Rooke, told Radio 4’s Today this week that the country was “moving from known extremes to unknown extremes. . . We will need to have that complete rethink.” This would include not just defences but improving resilience, he said.


Question of the week: Should overseas aid be diverted to help UK flood victims?

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