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Flooding: does charity really begin at home?

Friday 27 June 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who should have been at the Game Fair at Harewood House in Wharfedale this weekend, wonders if its cancellation might be a bad omen of things to come - and asks what Government will do about it

THE cancellation of this weekend's Game Fair at glorious Harewood House in Wharfedale disappointed me personally in several different ways - none of them financial. For others involved in the business of country sports, it was a massive set-back. But for thousands of country folk, it as an absolute disaster.

I have not been to many large agricultural shows since I was a junior reporter on a county weekly and had to cover many of them, laboriously writing down many hundreds of names, from pedigree bulls to the prize guinea pigs of little girls in the Fur and Feather and the winning chocolate sponges of their mothers in the WI tent.

game show flood
Game Show flooded out
Photo: CLA

That, and then spending the following Sunday and Monday typing them up, was hard work indeed, especially when our agricultural correspondent - my so-called "boss" for the day - was so drunk on free booze from the trade stands that I had to do his work too. My first ever rocket from the Editor came when I had missed off the numbers behind prize winning pigs' names: like kings and queens, their pedigree monikers came something like Lillywhite Laura the Third!

The CLA's Game Fair, however, has always been a favourite whenever it was within reasonable travelling distance. It allowed me to gloat over fishing tackle I couldn't afford and power-driven gardening tools designed for great landed parks and not tiny allotments like my present rice-paddy. One can always dream, I suppose.

I didn't have to write down any results and it was a good time to meet people from the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) who have organised this supreme country sports event - the biggest in Europe - for the past 49 years. This was the first time they have cancelled and it was particularly sad because the CLA was founded in York 100 years ago and this year's show was a centenary special.

My sadness, however, is as nothing compared to the financial woes of hundreds of gunsmiths, fishing tackle manufacturers, saddlers and the manufacturers of farm and forestry equipment. As we reported on Tuesday, they probably missed out on orders worth almost £50 million, a staggering amount for what are mainly small, family run businesses based in country towns.

But even that is chicken feed to the billions of pounds (£3.5 billion according to some estimates) of damage suffered by the people who have been inundated with floods this awful summer, from Filey on the Yorkshire coast to Henley on the Thames. And some of the worst hit of those have been farmers, whose crops have been ruined and milk runs cut off.

The simple fact of the matter is that money for flood defences has been severely
cut

I am not underplaying the suffering caused by townsfolk in these floods, from Doncaster and Sheffield to Tewkesbury and Gloucester. Being flooded out, followed by the cleaning up afterwards, is an awful experience - ask my wife, who as a child was handed from her bedroom window into the arms of a rescuing soldier on a lorry after the River Ouse had flooded York for the umpteenth time.

I could ask where are all the soldiers now - getting shot to bits far from home - but that is another sad story. The flood defences in York have been much improved in recent years, which is only right and proper for such a historic city. But what about all those other cities like Worcester and, potentially, Oxford. And what about scores of small country towns and villages that we have seen on our television screens, their church steeples poking out of enormous lakes?

One of the first acts of New Labour was to scrap the National Rivers Authority, which had done sterling work in tackling water pollution and had built up an unrivalled knowledge of flooding danger spots. As a cost-cutting exercise, the NRA was subsumed into the giant Environment Agency, the super-quango which has been taking much stick for its lack of preparation this week.

The simple fact of the matter is that money for flood defences has been severely cut and even abandoned altogether in some areas under Environment Agency stewardship. It's not their fault, however: most of the cuts came from Mr Steel Sporran himself, Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor.

In the past few weeks, as far as I can count, Mr Brown has offered a few tens of millions of pounds (it goes up slowly by the day) to help flood-hit households when the bill is in the billions. And Tory leader David Cameron, taking photo-opportunities in Africa whilst his own constituency back home was under water suggested that Britain should increase its foreign aid to £9 billion a year.

Now I am not opposed in combating poverty and AIDs in the Third World, or flooding in Bangladesh. But as the ever-generous British public, exasperated at political penny-pinching, raises its own charity appeal for English flood victims, can't we at least keep a share of this for home-grown disasters, for they will surely happen again: does charity no longer begin at home?

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