Neil Parish MP: Express and Echo Column October 2013

Neil Parish, MP for Tiverton and Honiton, writes in his regular column the Exeter Express and Echo on the St Jude Day storm:

THE storm that broke on Monday, October 28, incidentally on the feast of St Jude, saw across the country widespread disruption to public transport, flooding, damage to property, and tragically the loss of five lives after two people were hit by falling trees, another two were killed in a gas explosion and a boy was swept out to sea.

In Devon the storm caused 81 trees to collapse, many on roads, in winds clocked at up to 66 miles per hour, and the Environment Agency issued several flood warnings in the county.

Saint Jude is the Patron Saint of Lost Causes and I was reminded of this whilst attempting to make my way up to London from the Westcountry when I hit solid traffic in Wiltshire. A lorry was the side of the road with the whole of one side ripped off.

Despite the tragic loss of life, the hype about the “greatest storm in 20 years” the overall impact was thankfully less than was anticipated and the majority of damage done to property was minor.

What Monday’s storm did show however was the peninsula’s transport network continues to be highly vulnerable and lacks resilience in the face of extreme weather events.

A train hit a tree on the line at Ivybridge, although fortunately nobody was on the line, and there was widespread disruption to Devon’s roads, railways, as well as its ferries and air travel.

Devon has the largest single road network in England at nearly 8,000 miles.

In 2010 Devon County Council had to repair around 200,000 pot holes due to severe winter weather and since July 2012 Devon has suffered significant flooding, which has done untold damage to road and rail networks.

Clear-up costs over the Christmas 2012 period alone were over £100,000 and current estimates indicate that approximately £12.2m will need to be have been spent of emergency highway repairs for storm damage.

Although Devon is receiving approximately £2m worth of Bellwin emergency funding, this still leaves a £10.2m gap that they will have to fill.

Devon County Council estimates that it needs to spend £62m a year over the next 10 years to maintain the current condition of the highway at pre-2012 standards, and these costs will only go up in the aftermath of severe weather liked that experienced on Monday.

However, the Government capital allocations for Devon for 2013/14 and 2014/15 are only £39.4m and £34.6m respectively.

What is needed is greater flexibility in allocating emergency central funding so that Devon County Council can better respond to the aftermath of storms like that experienced on Monday.

Improving the resilience of Devon transport infrastructure in the face of extreme weather is something I hope to raise greater awareness of in Parliament over the coming months.

DURING the recent Government reshuffle at Defra the former farming Minister and Liberal Democrat MP David Health was replaced by Conservative MP George Eustace, for Camborne and Redruth.

However, I was disappointed to learn that whilst Mr Heath was a Minister of State Mr Eustace is a more junior “Parliamentary-Under Secretary of State”, with less clout and prestige in Whitehall.

During an evidence session on the 22nd October at the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, of which I am a member, examined Bronwyn Hill CBE, Permanent Secretary at Defra, on the annual accounts of her Department. I quizzed her on the fact that Defra had lost its Minister of State for agriculture and whether it reflected a change in the Government’s priorities and if Defra loses a Minister of State, someone else probably gains one.

She answered “Yes. My understanding is that because the position of Minister of State was occupied by a Liberal Democrat, David Heath, it was for the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, to decide whether he wanted to retain that post or to use it in another part of Government.”

This was an interesting, but simultaneously disappointing, answer. This means is that it was the decision of Nick Clegg the Deputy Prime Minster and Liberal Democrat Party Leader, to downgrade the status of Agriculture in this Government despite the fact that food security has never been a more pressing issue then it is today. Farming is a vital part of the rural economy and I know that many in the food and farming industry feel snubbed by the Deputy Prime Minister’s decision and I hope it is one he reconsiders. Increasing food production to meet the demands of a growing population is a grave challenge facing Governments around the world and to do it Government must give agriculture the place it deserves Whitehall.

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