The River Aire runs through my constituency on its way through west Yorkshire to the heart of Leeds city centre and towards the East Riding of Yorkshire. The Aire has been central to the life and development of Leeds, and Kirkstall specifically, for centuries. Kirkstall Abbey, a Cistercian monastery founded in the Aire valley in 1152, served as a centre of work, education and welfare for hundreds of years. A corn mill built by the monks on the river’s banks survived the abbey’s dissolution to power iron production and the manufacture of agricultural tools. Around Kirkstall forge grew engineering works that became a centre for steam train and automotive manufacturing, and the forge is now the focus of a major redevelopment and regeneration scheme which includes the building of a new railway station.
The industry and inventiveness of the local community has seen Kirkstall through the ups and downs of history, and today the area is home to more entrepreneurial people and businesses than ever. On Boxing day night, however, the Aire showed its full force when it rose to its highest-ever level of 5.2 metres—more than a metre higher than it has been since its previous peak in 1886—and its banks burst, devastating local businesses, families and the community. At the latest count, 519 businesses across Leeds were affected, along with 2,113 residential properties and 14 other properties, including the industrial museum at Armley Mills and Rodley nature reserve in my constituency.
In Kirkstall, approximately 250 businesses employing 2,500 people were affected. Businesses of all sizes lost machinery and stock, workers were laid off, and jobs were lost. Many small businesses have not yet been able to reopen, and many have laid off staff. I have heard from some that may never open their doors again. Furthermore, £8 million worth of key infrastructure across the city was damaged. The A65 Kirkstall Road, one of the main routes into and out of our city, had to close, as did the railway line from Leeds to Ilkley and Bradford.
The clean-up operation that took place so intensively in Kirkstall was a tribute to the community, as well as to Leeds City Council and our emergency services. With nearly 1,000 volunteers in Kirkstall alone, my constituency saw countless acts of everyday heroism that will be remembered by the people of Leeds for years to come. It is at times of adversity that we often see communities at their strongest, and we are reminded that together we can achieve so much more than we can alone. I have never been so proud to represent the people of Leeds West in Parliament.
I intend to focus on the flood defence scheme in Leeds, but let me first touch briefly on two other issues: flood insurance, and the funds that are available for immediate support. There is absolutely no guarantee that the businesses that are able to open their doors again after the floods will be able to gain access to affordable flood insurance. The Flood Re scheme, which is very welcome, applies to residential properties, but will not help small businesses in my constituency.
The Government must immediately review the extent of the challenges faced by businesses, and think about how they can step in to help when markets fail.