Soldiers walk through flood water in York, after the River Foss bursts its banks
Soldiers walk through flood water in York, after the Foss bursts its banks © PA

It was a business decision that proved critical. Opening for an extra hour on Boxing Day saved Matthew Pedder’s livelihood — and the lives of several hundred animals.

Mr Pedder, the owner of Tyrannosaurus Pets on Kirkstall Road in Leeds, hurried to his shop after a panicked phone call from his store manager at 5.30pm. “The water was seeping through the walls of the cellar,” he said. “We keep a lot of stock and animals down there.” The store specialises in expensive amphibians and reptiles, including tarantulas.

“We got them up with about 10 minutes to spare — if we had shut as usual at 5pm they would all have drowned. I’ve still lost thousands of pounds of stock.”

Like an estimated 50,000 small businesses nationwide, Mr Pedder cannot get flood insurance. “I rang up and was told this is a floodplain, although it has never flooded before. I think the insurers pulled a lot of cover after the floods [in the south and south-west] last year.”

Still, locals have offered to take home more than 300 of his 500 animals and Mr Pedder will reopen once his shop is ready.

The city of Leeds as a whole has not been so lucky with its timing. In 2011 the government vetoed a proposed £180m scheme that would have erected barriers along a 12-mile stretch of the river Aire, including the Kirkstall Road, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares.

Instead, the city will get lesser defences of £45m, though these will not be ready until March 2017 and will only protect the city centre.

Judith Blake, Leeds council leader, attacked the government on Monday for prioritising the south over the north and said the rest of the defence system should be funded immediately.

But others blamed the council for failing to clear drains — and for allowing houses to be built on floodplains in the first place. Paul Hudson, a BBC weatherman, said: “If you build on floodplains at the rate that Leeds council has allowed in the last 30 years, then sadly flooding becomes an accident waiting to happen.”

A popular tweet doing the rounds on Monday depicted a map showing York as it was in medieval times next to one showing the present flooding. Areas now under water matched what had then been lakes or rivers, showing how roads and buildings had been constructed over the old waterways.

About one in six properties in England and Wales is at risk of flooding and the Committee on Climate Change, the independent advisory body, warned last year that three-quarters of flood defences were inadequately maintained. Spending cuts could also threaten vital flood protection work, a committee of MPs warned this month.

The Labour party released minutes of a meeting of the Yorkshire Regional Flood and Coastal Committee from October at which Colin Mellors, its chairman, warned that funding cuts would require tough choices.

“With ever tighter budgets, it is clear that there will need to be even firmer prioritisation, especially in relation to maintenance [of flood defences],” Prof Mellors said in a report to the committee. He added that the committee would “most likely be asked in the new year to consider sites where maintenance might be formally discontinued”.

David Cameron, the prime minister, has promised to review Britain’s spending on flood defences after this month’s disasters, first from Storm Desmond, then from Eva — with Frank on the way. Some rivers reached their highest levels ever after a month’s worth of rain fell in a day in several places.

The sum of £2.3bn earmarked for capital schemes to 2020 was more than had been spent on defences over the previous five years, the prime minister added.

Earlier this year Brandon Lewis, the housing minister, pledged to build 1m more homes by 2020. But Rory Stewart, the floods minister, said this month: “We should not be building houses on floodplains.”

John Healey, Labour’s shadow housing minister, was quick to jump on the apparent conflict. “Residents who have suffered because of the terrible recent flooding deserve some proper planning and joined-up thinking,” he said.

A government spokeswoman said it had “put in place strong safeguards to stop inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding”. The government was “delivering the homes this country needs” by bringing more brownfield land forward for development, she said.

The final decision on whether to grant permission for construction on floodplains lay with local councils, which receive advice from the Environment Agency, she added.

National planning policy directs councils to locate development away from areas at highest risk of flooding.

Back on the Kirkstall Road, on the banks of the river Aire, shopkeepers were too busy counting the cost to apportion blame.

Kimberley Hayes’s basement beauty parlour had turned ugly, with hair brushes and bottles swirling in the dank water and bobbing against the luxurious wallpaper. “New Year’s Eve is one of our busiest days. We will have to do home visits,” she said as she oversaw two pumps sending water into the street. The electricity would be out for several days until the basement was fully dry.

Most were too tired to express any view of who’s fault the mess was. “I’m in shock,” said Mr Pedder. “In a couple of days I’ll be angry.”

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