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Storm Eunice

Volume 709: debated on Monday 21 February 2022

With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the electricity disruptions as a result of Storm Eunice and set out exactly how we are working to ensure that power is restored to people’s homes as quickly as possible. Storm Eunice brought severe weather, including wind gusts of up to 122 mph. That is among the highest speeds ever recorded in England. The Met Office took the unprecedented step of issuing a double red weather warning for Friday. Ensuing hurricane-force winds have caused extensive damage to buildings and trees. They have also caused power outages and widespread travel delays. After a day of disruption caused by Storm Eunice on Friday, Storm Franklin made landfall last night. It must be remembered in this difficult time that four people have tragically lost their lives in incidents related to the storms. My thoughts, and I am sure the thoughts of the whole House, are with the families and friends who have lost loved ones.

The Met Office estimates further strong gusts today, though not on the same scale as Storm Eunice. Some people, particularly in the south and east of England, have been without power for more than 72 hours. I want to reassure them that we have dedicated teams of engineers working night and day to get them reconnected as soon as possible. Continuing poor weather conditions have hampered those efforts, but I am pleased to say that, as of now, over 98% of those affected by the storms—more than 1.4 million customers—have had their power supply restored. However, as of 4 o’clock today, just under 30,000 households are still without power.

Today, the Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), has been in Sevenoaks in Kent to see the impact of the storm and to observe repairs. This weekend, I spoke directly to leaders at Scottish and Southern Energy Networks, and today I had conversations with leading managers at UK Power Networks and Western Power Distribution. They have given me assurances that restoration is happening as quickly as possible. The UK has been particularly badly hit by storms this year, but I am pleased to say that overall, our network operators and our brave emergency services have learned lessons about how we can improve our response, and we will continue to learn those lessons.

When I commissioned the review into our response to Storm Arwen in November, I made it clear that the very long delays some people faced to be reconnected were unacceptable. I am pleased to say that, where practical, network operators have already implemented improvements to their procedures. Additionally, operators are sharing resources and ensuring that engineers are sent to the worst affected areas. Welfare provisions are in place for those who are most in need, particularly the vulnerable members of our communities. Network operators are engaged with local partners to ensure that people are being supported. Catering units are travelling to badly hit areas, and smaller welfare units are providing hot water and other facilities to people who are adversely affected. I am extremely grateful to the network operators and the emergency responders who have been working very hard to keep people as comfortable as possible. I am aware that during Storm Arwen, the people experiencing the worst effects of the devastation had difficulty in communicating, and that people are still experiencing issues today. However, I am pleased to say that if they call their network operator by dialling 105 from their mobile, they should get a speedy response. That action will automatically route them to the right operator based on their physical location.

I believe this is the first time that three named storms have come in such quick succession, day after day, since the storm-naming convention was introduced a little less than a decade ago. This is a difficult time for many, but I have been reassured that operators are working extremely hard to make sure people are reconnected as quickly as possible, and in the next couple of days at the latest. My Department and I will continue to provide support and apply pressure, where needed, to ensure people are reconnected in a timely way.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I join him in sending my condolences to the families of the victims who tragically died during Storm Eunice, and I express my sympathy to all those who have been affected by the storms. Many families have endured real hardship in these past few days, being without power for an extended period. I also know, including from my own constituency, that many others are facing an anxious time with the threat of flooding from Storm Franklin. My thoughts are with them, too.

I also join the Secretary of State in praising all the engineers, network staff and emergency service staff who have done such an important job in incredibly difficult circumstances over the past few days, as well as local authorities, which have also played an important role in the emergency response.

On the substance of the statement, first, the most important priority is to reconnect those who are still without power. I welcome what the Secretary of State said about people being reconnected by Wednesday at the latest, and I trust that he will, as he says, hold all the companies to account in mobilising all their resources across the country to make sure this happens.

Secondly, on vulnerable households, in its interim review of the response to Storm Arwen last November, BEIS noted confusion of roles and responsibilities for vulnerable customers and communities that were cut off. The Secretary of State says the arrangements are working better, and I am glad that lessons have been learned. Can he tell us how he is monitoring that and is assured of it?

Thirdly, there were unacceptable delays in the networks’ compensation payments after Storm Arwen, with 10,000 customers having not been compensated six weeks after the storm. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure speedy payments on this occasion?

Fourthly, these events raise longer-term issues. Scientists tell us that we cannot necessarily attribute the ferocity of Storm Eunice to climate change, but we know that we face more intense and frequent extreme weather as a result of the climate crisis, so again it throws up the question of our resilience and security as a country.

After the storms in 2013, there was a clear sense of the vulnerabilities of the overhead power network and agreement that the energy networks would act. In its interim report on Storm Arwen this month, Ofgem said again that it will review the costs and benefits of the resilience of overhead lines, and the Climate Change Committee has highlighted climate risks to the power system. Does the Secretary of State agree that events this winter demonstrate the need to give greater priority to and, indeed, investment in the resilience of our power network?

More generally, the Climate Change Committee said in its five-year progress report last summer that adaptation is

“under-resourced, underfunded and often ignored.”

Does the Secretary of State agree that these storms are yet another wake-up call about the need for a proper national resilience plan that covers our power lines, flood defences and critical infrastructure?

The truth is that, as a country, we face significant threats from extreme weather in the years ahead. Today we should acknowledge the important work done in response to this crisis, but the lesson has been demonstrated yet again that we owe people the long-term planning and investment to give them all the protection we can.

The right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will be surprised that I am in a measure of agreement with him. He is absolutely right to warn that extreme weather events could be—I am not saying they will be—a feature of our landscape and climate. As a constituency MP, I remember the floods of 2013-14 and the devastation they caused.

The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I launched a review of Storm Arwen, and we have learned many lessons from the interim report. We are committed to conversing with colleagues across Government on a more integrated plan. I am grateful to him for highlighting the extreme weather conditions that many of us may well face in the future.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Thousands of my constituents and others across East Sussex remain not only without electricity but without water. I recognise this is one of the worst storms in decades, and I also recognise the huge amount of work delivered on the ground by the engineers at UK Power Networks and South East Water to try to fix this, but our water supply requires the electricity system to work and it is not good enough that there are no back-up generators in place for the water to be pumped into the hills and other areas across my constituency. May I meet the Secretary of State to discuss how we can have better resilience, with the water companies having their own back-up generators so that people are not without water when the electricity goes down?

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, and he is right to point out the intolerable difficulties that people face with regard to the water supply. Colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and officials in BEIS are very engaged with this, and I would be happy to speak to him at a convenient time.

Following Storms Arwen and Barra in November and December, and Storms Malik and Corrie in late January, we have now had three named storms in a week: Dudley, Eunice and Franklin. There will potentially be a fourth named storm in eight days, with Storm Gladys later this week. It seems this winter will not go quietly.

Naming storms sometimes dulls their impact, but the truth is that these storms’ heavy rain and snowfall, combined with record-breaking winds, have caused huge damage to buildings, environmental destruction and, sadly, the loss of four lives to uprooted trees, flying debris and flooding. My sympathies are with all those affected.

I join the shadow Secretary of State in thanking all the engineers who restored power to homes across the country and, indeed, the Network Rail engineers who restored the track and kept us moving. I am very sympathetic to his points about compensation payments.

Climate change has seen an increased frequency of storms, with Storm Franklin currently giving rise to flood warnings in parts of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he will do all he can to ensure that his Government keep their climate pledges and the large spending commitments that go with them? Will he ignore his Back Benchers who seem to be obsessed with the UK reneging on its agreements? Following COP26, what are we doing to discuss future international responses to worldwide extreme weather?

Finally, Eunice left about 1.4 million homes without power, and Storm Arwen affected more than 1 million homes, including thousands in Aberdeenshire that were without power for well over a week. What short-term and long-term plans are being considered by the UK Government to strengthen our energy resilience and infrastructure? Crucially, what is being done to ensure we do not see a repeat of last year, when thousands were without power for so long?

The hon. Gentleman raises a number of fair points. On the net zero challenge, he will be pleased to know that the Chancellor’s latest comprehensive spending review at the end of last year had a considerable uplift in the capital spend dedicated to net zero. He will also appreciate that, for the first time ever, we had a ringfence for tidal stream. The Government are doing lots of things to pursue renewables and to decarbonise our power system.

On resilience, the hon. Gentleman will know that I commissioned a review of Storm Arwen, and there is an interim report. I am sure he and I will be able to discuss the full report in due course.

Storms Eunice and Franklin continue to have devastating impacts across Keighley and Ilkley, with several homes still flooded and a landslide at the rear of a property on Westlea Avenue in Riddlesden which has forced several constituents out of their homes, with one property left at structural risk. My heart goes out to all those impacted. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that emergency support will be made available to all those affected, and particularly to those who face the critical situation of being forced out of their homes for their own safety?

As I suggested in the statement, my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we are working very closely with the distribution network operators to ensure adequate physical support. There is also a compensation scheme, which is operated with Ofgem. I personally raised the amount that people could be compensated in the aftermath of Storm Arwen, and we will stick to that this time. There is plenty of support for his constituents.

Last week, we had a red alert for much of south Wales. The Minister has said that there have been a number of discussions with electricity companies, including Western Power Distribution, but can he tell the House what discussion has taken place with the Welsh Government?

We speak to officials in the devolved Administrations on a regular basis. I spoke only to WPD and the distribution network companies, but our officials engage with DA colleagues all the time.

Following this week’s storms, yet again my constituents have been hit by flooding in their homes, and Staffordshire businesses have been disrupted. Will my right hon. Friend work with me to create a flood control centre, based in Stafford, which will provide 24-hour local assistance to my constituents who are affected by flooding?

I reassure my hon. Friend that as a consequence of the 2013-14 floods, we established and made much more robust local resilience forums and flood defence networks. I would be happy to discuss with her schemes that may be applied to her constituency, particularly as regards a centre in Stafford.

Flood warnings are in place across South Yorkshire and this is a worrying time for many in Barnsley, especially those without adequate insurance. I acknowledge the work of Flood Re, but, sadly, for many this is still not affordable. What work are the Government doing with insurance companies to make sure that everyone can get the insurance they deserve?

Again, I refer to the 2013-14 period. I know that a number of people here were not in the House at that time, but this was precisely the issue that came up then and we have tried to engage with Flood Re. It has responded more effectively and we will see what more can be done in this area.

Shropshire has seen three storms in one week, with massive flooding along the River Severn, displaced flooding and a huge amount of storm damage. Often in these circumstances the actions or inactions of insurance companies, in supporting businesses that have been struggling after the pandemic and are now being flooded and people who are being driven out of their homes, compound the trauma that so many people suffer. Will the Secretary of State ensure that his Department deals with the Association of British Insurers and others to ensure speedy payouts? [Interruption.]

As the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), reminds me, the Government and her Department are looking at Flood Re and how it responds to these very affecting natural disasters. However, I would be happy to discuss with my right hon. Friend the specific issues of business resilience and support that arise in his constituency.

The aftermath of Storm Eunice and Storm Franklin has taught us what many in Shropshire and across the rest of the country already knew: whenever a storm hits, the Government do not seem to be prepared to support the thousands of people in rural areas who are really badly affected. This is the third year in a row that villages along the Severn and Vyrnwy rivers have faced record or near-record levels of flooding—this includes the records being breached just a few hours ago in my constituency. People have been left cut off, often without power, water and, in some cases, accommodation. In order to help those impacted by these winter storms, these communities also need the food, water, emergency accommodation and electricity generators that have been mentioned while those services are restored. So will the Government commit to providing that assistance to people in the aftermath of these storms and to working with the Environment Agency to deal with the catchment areas in the upper Severn?

Perhaps belatedly, I welcome the hon. Lady to her position; I believe this is the first time I have encountered her in BEIS questions or statements. On the substance of her remarks, we engage readily with colleagues across the House who represent Shropshire seats. We have looked into how we can be more resilient against flooding in the Severn area, and my colleagues in DEFRA are very focused on this issue. I would be happy to engage with her on the business side of this resilience package.

First, I pay tribute to the work of UK Power Networks, which has been reconnecting people 24/7 over the weekend; they got me at 4 am on Saturday, for which I was very grateful. However, certain areas, such as Knockholt and Swanley Village in my constituency, have been subject to a number of power cuts over the year and have been difficult to reconnect this time because of out-of-date infrastructure. Will we make sure that they are prioritised in the wash-up of this, when we look at how we strengthen our infrastructure overall?

I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that we have engaged very actively with UKPN; I spoke to the chief executive officer only this morning, and I understand that the Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), was very near my hon. Friend’s constituency, if not in it, earlier this morning. This issue is something we are very focused on; we want to engage with her to build up local resilience and, crucially, to work with the distributors of power.

I join the Secretary of State in thanking local people in Bristol and, in particular, Bristol City Council for getting meals to vulnerable people during the difficult last weekend, and Great Western Railway for trying to keep things running between Bristol and London. May I press him a little on the request from one of my colleagues for him to join the flood preparedness taskforce, working with local leaders, and ask what moves he is making to work with local leaders in Bristol and the further south-west to make us better prepared for the future?

On flooding, I know from my own experience as a constituency MP that a huge amount of work is being done at the Environment Agency level and co-ordinated by my right hon. and hon. Friends in DEFRA. They engage closely with flooded areas, and particularly vulnerable areas. The Government are always looking to reinforce our provision and help, and to learn lessons from events such as Storm Arwen. We are learning lessons and have learned lessons, but there is more progress to be made.

As my right hon. Friend has said, we have seen unprecedented levels of power outages because of the consistent levels of storms in the past few months. He also mentioned the review after Storm Arwen, but will he say what steps the power companies are taking to ensure that all replacement infrastructure—that is happening as we speak—is much more resilient than that which it is replacing, so that we do not see the same issues in future storms?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is heartening to see him re-engaging with the House in such a dynamic way. He was a fabulous Whip—firm but gentle—and it is good to see him engaging on this issue. He will know that we engage with the power companies all the time; I have spoken to these people, including the CEOs, and they have given certain commitments. This time, they have responded very quickly. We had issues last time, but they have learnt the lessons from that. I am very happy to talk to him about how we are putting their feet to the fire on their promises and making sure that they can deliver on those. They made certain commitments this week and I am looking forward to seeing them making sure that they deliver on them.

May I add my condolences about the people who died during these storms? Yesterday, hundreds of people in the north-west were forced to flee their homes as rivers burst their banks, and thousands more households remain without heating or electricity. Although Storms Eunice and Franklin may not be directly linked to global heating, there is absolutely no doubt that the impact of these kinds of extreme weather events will become all the more destructive as the climate crisis intensifies. Yet Tory Back Benchers are still plotting to deal a hammer blow to hard-won progress on climate, lining up the net zero agenda as the latest target in their never-ending culture war. Does the Secretary of State agree that recent days have demonstrated the importance of not only investing more in climate resilience measures, but going further and faster in decarbonising our economy?

The hon. Gentleman will know that I have nothing but good will to all my colleagues on the Government Benches, and we have a healthy debate about many matters of public policy. He will also know that we are 100% committed to the net zero strategy, which I was told by someone who is not even a resident of the UK was a world-beating document. I have announced that we have increased our financial commitment to net zero more than any other Government, and we want to work with everyone across the House to fight the challenge of climate change.

Flash flooding caused chaos and havoc throughout my Colne Valley constituency over the weekend: on Waingate in Linthwaite, fast-flowing water was going through people’s homes; Gynn Lane in Honley was like a river; and businesses were flooded in Holmfirth. I really thank the Kirklees Council staff who were updating me on the situation until late last night—Councillor Donna Bellamy and many more were on site and kept me updated. Does the Secretary of State agree that as well as resilience in our electricity network, we need resilience in our drainage infrastructure? We need to clear culverts, gullies and drains of debris so that when we get such heavy rainfall, we do not see flash flooding.

That is a crucial point. The effects of the storm clearly operate right across our economy. It is not just a power-distribution issue; flooding is a huge challenge. As a constituency MP with a Thames-side seat, I remember the flooding in 2013 and 2014. The Environment Agency and the water companies—Thames Water in my case—all have a responsibility to keep infrastructure in as fit and ready a state as possible, so that in future we have more resilience against such storms.

Right now, York is flooding. We are particularly concerned about the Clementhorpe area and the area around Tower Street, where there are lots of businesses that are not able to benefit from the Flood Re scheme. Will the Secretary of State go back and look at insurance for businesses so that they do not perpetually lose out year after year?

The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), assures me that she and her team and colleagues in DEFRA are willing and eager to engage with the hon. Lady. My understanding is that the Foss barrier is working and has not been breached yet. I am hopeful that my DEFRA colleagues can engage with the hon. Lady on this extremely important issue.

Jack Bristow from Sutton Courtenay in my constituency is one of the four people who lost their lives in Storm Eunice. He had been using his truck to help with the aftermath of the storm down in Hampshire when a tree fell on it. He was only 23 years old and had a one-year-old son. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to Jack and in paying our condolences to his mother Teresa, to his partner Courtney and to all those who knew and loved him?

I am very saddened to hear about the fate of my hon. Friend’s all too young constituent. These tragic events remind us of the real human cost of climate change and extreme weather eventualities. I remember that in my own constituency eight years ago, in 2014, a little eight-year-old boy, Zane Gbangbola, died. This is really the first time I have been able to pay tribute to him. I fully understand the pain and anguish that Jack’s family are having to live with.

I thank the Secretary of State for his diligence. Tens of thousands of people across Northern Ireland have lost electricity, including some 500 people in one village in my Strangford constituency. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether additional funding will filter through the Barnett consequentials to coastal constituencies in particular? My Strangford constituency’s battle with coastal erosion has seen increased issues with coastal roads. What discussions has he had with the Deputy Minister at the Northern Ireland Assembly to ensure that all parts of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will have help when they need it and that emergency support will be on hand as soon as possible?

The hon. Gentleman will know that Northern Ireland gets its fair share of support through the Barnett formula. On the specifics of climate change and erosion, I would be happy to meet him with DEFRA colleagues. I visited Northern Ireland only two months ago to talk about the need for more resilient energy and to decarbonise and rely more on renewables. Northern Ireland has a great story to tell about our future battle against climate change and I am happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman about it.