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Storm Arwen

Volume 816: debated on Thursday 2 December 2021


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 1 December.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the electricity disruptions as a result of Storm Arwen and how we are working to ensure that power is restored to people’s homes.

Storm Arwen brought severe weather, including high winds of up to 100 mph, rain, snow and ice, causing the most severe disruption since 2005. Many people across the country, but particularly in northern England and Scotland, have been without power for a number of days. Three people have tragically lost their lives in incidents related to the storm. My thoughts—and, I am sure, the thoughts of the whole House—are with those people and their loved ones.

I want to reassure people who are still without power—who are exhausted, worried and angry—that we are all working incredibly hard to ensure that normal conditions return. We have incredibly dedicated teams of engineers, who have been working around the clock to restore the network. The scale of the restoration effort that engineers are facing is enormous. The weekend saw exceptionally strong winds of almost 100 mph, which brought large trees and debris down on to power lines. For example, central Scotland has only seen wind speeds like this twice in the last 25 years. Of course, to add to the complex situation, much of the damage is in remote and hard-to-reach places.

I am glad to say that more than 95% of those affected by the storm—over 935,000 customers—have had their power supply restored so far; I thank the engineers for their hard work and perseverance. However, as of 8 o’clock this morning, there were still 30,000 customers without power. The specific areas most severely affected are: Wear valley surrounding Eastgate and north Northumberland; the north Peak District and the South Lakes areas; and Aberdeenshire and Perthshire in Scotland.

Today, the Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my right honourable friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham, Greg Hands, is on the ground in Berwick to see at first hand the impact from storm disruption. Yesterday, I spoke with the chief executive officers of Northern Powergrid, Electricity North West, and Scottish & Southern Electricity Networks to seek assurance that restoration is happening as fast as is humanly possible. I am satisfied that these operators are sharing their resources through mutual aid agreements and putting engineers in the worst affected areas.

I am also grateful to emergency responders, who have been working hard to keep people as comfortable as possible by providing torches, blankets and other necessities, and sorting out alternative accommodation where necessary. Officials in my department are monitoring the situation closely and are in constant contact with network operators to ensure that customers can be reconnected as quickly as possible.

People who are still experiencing issues or who need further support should contact their electricity network operator by dialling 105 from their landline or mobile phone. This will automatically route them to the right operator, based on their physical location. People are also eligible for compensation on which they can find details on the Ofgem website.

For those who continue to be without power, I know their primary question will be ‘When will power be restored?’ I have been assured that the overwhelming majority of those still without power today will have it restored in the next day or two. I have asked operators to provide named contacts for MPs and I will be sharing those with colleagues.

This has been an extremely difficult week for many of our constituents, and I thank them for their fortitude in the face of these extreme weather conditions. When the power is back up and back to normal, we in BEIS will of course be looking at the lessons that we can learn from Storm Arwen in order to build an even more resilient power system in future.”

The Minister may have heard of a small village in Cumbria called Ullock. In Ullock, we were without power from Friday evening through to Tuesday afternoon, so I have an acute understanding of the impact of Storm Arwen and the extreme weather it brought, which has been so challenging for the district network operators to fix, but it now appears that we were fortunate in that we were off for only four nights. The severity of the storm and the difficulties in restoring electricity connection referred to in the Statement have highlighted a number of serious concerns that the Government need to address.

First, will the Minister tell us what consideration the Government have given specifically to the impact on rural communities that are not on the gas grid and not as accessible in poor weather? Without gas, communities rely much more heavily on electricity for heating, hot water and cooking a hot meal, and it has been really cold. The Government and power companies were warned about the storm, so why was more attention not paid and more preparations made to provide the support that the rural and more isolated communities would need?

Where I live, there are elderly residents in their 90s, who are not classified as clinically vulnerable, so they had no extra support, apart from neighbours—who were in the same position, with no heat, no light, no hot water and no hot food. Does the Minister agree that the very old should not be left in this position for days on end?

This brings me to my concerns, personally experienced, about the very poor quality of much communication. In the 21st century, we should surely be able to provide timely and accurate information to residents. Electricity North West told me that I was experiencing a “fault journey”. Unfortunately, I had no idea when or where that journey was likely to end. While I still had charge in my phone, I could go to the website to read the out-of-date and inaccurate information, which told me on a number of occasions that there was no fault in my postcode area. My husband called and was on hold for a long time, as were so many others. When he was finally put through, he was told that there was no information available and to keep up to date through the website. Of course, you cannot do this once your phone is flat.

Moving on to compensation, can the Minister categorically assure the House that there will be a prompt settlement of compensation claims and no attempt by any DNO to try to wriggle out of paying all claims in full? We should also remind ourselves that high levels of compensation are set by Ofgem to encourage DNOs to increase resilience. Will the Government ask Ofgem to increase the requirement on DNOs to improve domestic resilience, because if there is a lesson to be learned from Storm Arwen, it is that our long-term resilience against extreme weather is simply not good enough?

Yesterday, in the other place, Kwasi Kwarteng said that the Government would be

“trying actively to learn lessons”.—[Official Report, Commons, 1/12/21; col. 929.]

He also said:

“We have to be prepared for similarly extreme difficult weather conditions in future and make sure that our system is resilient in that eventuality”.—[Official Report, Commons, 1/12/21; col. 921.]

He is absolutely correct in that. We know that climate change will bring more extreme weather events and, as part of the efforts to tackle climate change, the Government are, quite rightly, phasing out fossil fuels. That includes petrol and diesel, gas and oil. There has been much discussion during the debate on the Statement about generators. What are the plans for generators once petrol and diesel have been phased out?

As we move away from oil and gas heating and towards electrical heating across all homes—because currently that is really the only option—how will the Government make the network resilient? Can the Government categorically say that it can be made completely resilient for the future in its current form? If we cannot rely on the resilience of the grid, we need to look at how we can make our homes resilient. What plans do the Government have for this? For example, what investment is being made into battery storage technologies? What work is being done to look at the future build of new homes to bring in this resilience? We could, for example, fit all new homes with solar panels with a battery storage back-up when that future technology is ready. We need long-term investment to make this happen.

Storm Arwen has been a warning to the Government and to the power companies that, with climate change and the likelihood of more frequent weather events, we cannot continue as we are. With the decarbonisation and electrification of domestic heating, there must be resilience built in for when the supply fails while the grid is being restored. What are the Government doing to get Ofgem to incentivise the DNOs to do this? How is Ofgem working with them to achieve this as quickly as possible? Will the Minister speak to the Government about reporting back to Parliament in six months on progress made in this area?

Finally, if the Minister is not taken by my suggestions on how we could make domestic properties more resilient outside of the grid network, can he inform your Lordships’ House how the Government are investing for the future so that we do not have to revisit the misery faced following Storm Arwen over and again?

My Lords, I associate myself and these Benches with the points made so eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, both now and at Questions earlier. Her frustration is representative of the many people who must declare an interest in this issue. When I came down from the Borders last Monday, I had no power in my house; when I arrived back there on Friday there were eight outages that evening and no power overnight on Saturday. However, I was one of the lucky ones because I had some power on Sunday.

I hope that the disproportionate effect on rural areas will be the key lesson in the post-incident review to which the Government have committed. For those living in Kincardine who still lack reliable power, there should be an equivalent test: how would this place treat it if it were Knightsbridge? We are asking people to do the same: to work from home, provide services and care for people. There should be no difference between a resident in Knightsbridge and a resident in Kincardine in the 21st century, especially during a pandemic when people want to be carers or to work from home.

I noticed in the Statement that the Minister had been in Berwick, so I declare my second interest. It is my hometown and where my mum and dad still live. I know that the Minister knows the north-east extremely well as he is a northerner; actually, he is a north-easterner. It is unsettling when you speak to elderly relatives who are genuinely scared about what is happening and are vulnerable due to what happens afterwards. The lack of support for vulnerable communities in rural areas has been shocking in this regard.

The question will be: who has the primary responsibility? I know that many local authorities and their staff have worked extremely hard over this time; I saw it for myself with the local authority for the Borders, and the farmers and others who cleared roads and supported people. Many people in these communities are also first responders and, during this situation, have been checking on vulnerable residents in local authorities. However, certainly in the Borders, local authorities have been extremely frustrated with the electricity companies due to their lack of communication with customers; this was outlined eloquently before.

I will say one thing to the Minister with regard to the Statement. Some people in the north-east of Scotland have had not only their power supply but their mobile phone masts go down. Many communities have now been passed over to voice through broadband phones, as in my house, but there has been no communication at all. Therefore, the Statement giving an indication that people should dial 105 from their landline or mobile when they have no mobile phone coverage is—how should I say this?—insensitive, to say the least. I do not know how the Minister will do it but one lesson that we must learn is how to have civil contingencies when so much now relies on mobile and electricity networks.

My other question relates to power lines. In a former life, before I was elected in the Borders, I worked for David Steel when he was an MP. I strongly remember the awful length of the power cuts then. I know about the modernisation of the network in the north of England and Scotland.

Do we stress test the local networks? We stress test banks and other institutions, but is there a lack of legislative power for the Government to insist that companies stress test their networks so we know that, when it comes to what could well be more frequent events, the networks have been graded on a stress-test basis? This has given a lot of people a lack of confidence in the network and many of the companies.

The final thing I would say is that we have seen through bitter experience—certainly in the Borders and other areas, and in the north-west of England—that there have been improvements in flood warning systems and the way communities are able to operate. These systems have been put in place so that, when flood alerts are indicated, the public bodies and the private sector are prepared. But it seems as though we are not learning from those experiences with floods when it comes to electricity outages. I would be grateful to know what the post-incident review scope is and, in particular, how customers, consumers and communities themselves can feed into it when they are back to having reliable energy supplies.

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their contributions. Let me state that I totally share their frustration and annoyance. Storm Arwen has brought severe weather to many parts of the north of our country, and those in the north of England and Scotland have suffered the most. Many have been without power for several days, and we totally understand their frustration, annoyance and indeed fury. I am not immune to that, as someone who comes from that part of the world as well. Let me reiterate that we are all working incredibly hard to ensure we can return to normality as soon as is humanly possible.

Yesterday, my Secretary of State stated in the Commons that restoring power across the entire country is a “grave concern” of ours, and a top priority and focus for the Government. Officials are in constant contact with the distribution network operators to understand their response, and operators have a mature and successful programme of sharing and deploying qualified resources to those areas most in need. My Secretary of State is having daily calls with local resilience forums, including the various chairmen in the north of England, to discuss the ongoing response. The Government continue to reinforce that, if additional support is needed by the industry, it needs only to escalate it to senior officials. Let me say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, that the Government remain in constant regular communication with the distribution network operators, to ensure that communication—which, frankly, has been lamentable in many cases—is up to speed.

In the case of Northern Powergrid, I understand its phone lines are now operating properly; obviously there were problems with calls initially. Waits are now down from several hours to a few minutes, so people can now contact it.

The scale of the restoration effort that engineers are facing is enormous. The storm brought down trees and debris on to power lines, and wind speeds were exceptional. Since the storm hit, on Friday 26 November, over 4,000 engineers have been working round the clock to repair damage in very difficult conditions. Nearly 800 generators have been deployed to provide people with emergency power, and I am pleased to report to the House that, so far, over 98% of those affected by the storm—more than 964,000 customers—have had their power supply restored so far. I totally accept that that will be no compensation whatever to the few thousand who are still without power. As of 4 pm today, that was about 15,000 households, and that includes about 9,000 in the north-east, focused around the Wear Valley, Eastgate and north Northumberland; about 3,000 in the north-west, especially in the north Peak District and the south lakes areas; and a little under 3,000 across north Scotland, mostly in Aberdeenshire and Perthshire.

To confirm, all customers who have faced electricity distribution issues caused by Storm Arwen will have their power restored before Christmas—there was no truth in the rumours Members were referring to this morning. We expect to have the vast majority of those customers connected within one week. We know people are desperate to return to normality, and my department has been reassured that power will be restored, as I said, to the majority of customers by the end of this week, at the latest.

On the lessons learned, I thank the people who have borne with us during these difficult times and give a final reassurance that everyone involved is straining every sinew to ensure that they are reconnected as quickly as possible. We will ensure that all the appropriate lessons have been learned and, if such a storm happens again, that we are as resilient as we possibly can be.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, asked about compensation. Ofgem, the independent regulator, sets service levels that companies must meet, with rules on how quickly network operators must restore power. It also sets compensation payments for consumers if those standards are not met, as they clearly have not been in these circumstances. I will ensure that Ofgem puts maximum pressure on the companies for those compensation payments to be made as swiftly and speedily as possible.

Regarding vulnerable consumers, those who have reached state pension age can register as priority service customers with their network operator, and will then be prioritised in terms of support, including to rural communities. We are working with the network operators to reduce vulnerabilities in future and to ensure that the network is as resilient as possible to these disruptive events. We intend urgently to review the exercise with the network operators to stress test the appropriate systems and will be able to share the terms of reference for review once the incident is over. We can then finalise the appropriate scope. Ofgem will also consider whether there is need for any further regulatory investigation.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, made a very good point about people not being able to get in touch when mobiles are down. The priority service register means that when outages occur, operators will already be able to locate the most vulnerable affected people and help them. They set up strategic hubs in the disrupted areas to aid communication with other customers, but I totally accept that these are often sparsely populated areas, and often rural areas with poor transport and communication links. Many network operators did their best in difficult circumstances.

My Lords, I fully agree with what has been said by other noble Lords so far. I have a house on the Northumberland coast, near Alnwick, which, as my noble friend will be aware, received the highest wind rating—98 mph—during this terrible storm, a storm which is very difficult to be ready for or predict.

My question is a little broader. My house sustained some damage, but that can be put right. Luckily, I did not lose any power there. What sort of audit will be carried out following the storm, not necessarily to learn lessons but to put things right? Thousands of trees in Kielder Forest, which my noble friend and I know well, have been destroyed. They will have to be replanted. All along the Northumberland coast, facilities of all kinds have been destroyed, such as golf courses on the links. These may not be a priority to some people right now, but nevertheless, they are important to some small business, such as cafés and restaurants. Agricultural equipment and facilities to store it have been destroyed. The insurance companies will no doubt be involved, and I hope that my noble friend will be asking them to be as speedy and sympathetic as possible in putting things right, but what audit will be carried out to look at the effects of this storm and how, perhaps, more aid can be given in a directed manner, to put things right as soon as possible for the communities that have suffered so much?

My noble friend makes some good points, and I am obviously pleased to hear that his property was not too badly affected. As he knows, I know the area well and I am pleased that his power managed to be left in place. He makes some very good points about the totality of the damage, not just to public infrastructure and essential services, but to local authorities’ premises and the property of private businesses; it will be immense. Our priority at the moment is to get everybody restored and back on to the network, but we will need to learn the lessons and look at what we can do to help the affected communities in future.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership and a landowner in Cumbria who was not directly affected by the power cuts. Can the Minister confirm that the capacity of the infrastructure to respond to events like this is equivalent in the various parts of England, in particular between the north and south?

Yes, I believe that it is. The network operators are as resilient and able in the north of England as they are in the south. But a fact of the geography and communication of this country is that many more people live in the south. Those of us in the north always complain that when there are severe snowstorms and snow events, in the north nobody notices, but if a little bit of snow falls in London it is a catastrophe and all over the national news—which is probably characteristic of how many of our national broadcasters and reporters are based in and around the capital. It is up to us from the north to make sure that this does not happen in future and that cataclysmic events such as this get the appropriate coverage and respect.

House adjourned at 6.16 pm.