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Power Outages: North of England

Volume 816: debated on Thursday 2 December 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the ongoing power outages across the North of England.

My Lords, in begging leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice, I declare that I am a customer of Northern Powergrid.

In the face of damage to infrastructure unprecedented in recent years, network engineering staff have been working tirelessly in challenging conditions to make repairs and restore power as quickly as possible. As of this morning, fewer than 20,000 people remain without power, and more than 950,000 have had their electricity restored. The Secretary of State has commissioned his officials to conduct a post-incident review to learn lessons and improve system resilience and customer support.

I am grateful to my noble friend for his Answer. He will be aware that there was simply no way to report a power cut or to receive information as to how the planned power cut might be expected to be terminated. There was no mobile signal and, obviously, there was no access because there was no power to the internet, which are the two main means by which customers are asked to report a power outage. Will my noble friend ensure that the military engineers are sent in to support Northern Powergrid and others responsible for the remaining thousands of customers who are without power, and ensure that a rumour going around that some will be without power until the new year is absolutely untrue? In the long term, will my noble friend ensure that we reduce reliance on overhead power lines and the overhead transmission of power, and seek to put these giant electricity wires underground, as is the case in other parts of the country?

Of course, there are many lessons to be learned from the past week. It has been extremely challenging in the north of the country. I am from there myself and well aware of the issues: many people have contacted me about it. I just say to the noble Baroness that more than 4,000 engineers have been working to repair the damage, 750 generators have been deployed to provide emergency power and vulnerable customers have been prioritised for support. There are clearly issues about being able to contact Northern Powergrid, in particular; it was overwhelmed by the volume of calls. These were exceptionally strong winds of more than 100 miles per hour, and it is the most damage that has been done to the system for 15 years.

My Lords, obviously, the capacity to respond is in question, and I am pleased to hear the Minister say that there will be a review ongoing, but the review is no good to the people who have lost power today. As the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said, there are rumours—indeed, statements—that this could go on for some people right up to Christmas and the new year. Speaking in the House, the Secretary of State was unable to say whether that was true. He said

“I will do everything in my power to ensure that this does not happen.”—[Official Report, Commons, 1/12/21; col. 924.]

Given the structure of the industry, perhaps the Minister can say what is in the power of the Secretary of State and what practical help he has given to the people who still do not have power.

My colleague, Minister Hands, went up to visit the area yesterday, spoke to many people who had been affected and met many of the engineers who have been working around the clock over the past week to restore power. As the noble Lord said, there are a number of lessons that we need to learn from this. It was fairly unprecedented, but of course that is no compensation to the people affected, concentrated in the north of England and Scotland, who have been suffering greatly—I have heard many of their stories myself. We must give any resources or support that we can to the companies concerned. Restoring power is a complicated, technical exercise. We need to ensure that the people doing it, who are very skilled personnel, are working safely and we will want to support them in every possible way.

My Lords, this was a very bad series of storms in the north-east. I do not think it is unprecedented, because I recall a similar one in the south-east of England in 1987—some older noble Lords will remember that. It sometimes took weeks for the power to be reconnected. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said that the answer is to put more power lines underground. Is there not a conflict between the enormous cost of putting power underground and the fact that we do not like cutting trees down? Trees tend to fall on wires, railway lines and other such things. Is there a solution to this, or have we just got to accept that we love our trees, they will knock the wires down occasionally and we just have to accept that there will be delays and congratulate all the people trying to put it right?

I hope we will not just accept it. Balancing the different factors that the noble Lord mentioned, we need to put as many cables underground as possible, but he is right that that is much more expensive than running overhead lines. We need to do what we can to improve the resilience of the system, but I am sure we would meet many objections if the solution was to cut down more trees near power lines.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House how many people are still without power—the figure of 50,000 has been mentioned; whether the Army has been asked to go in to support those people who are cut off in this awful winter weather; and what plans the Government have, given the prospect of climate change, with such storms likely to be increasingly prevalent, to forestall or deal with situations of this nature that arise in future?

My understanding is that there are currently about 20,000 people who are still without power. As I said, 950,000 have had their power restored. I understand the calls for the Army to be deployed, and its abilities are legendary, but it is important to recognise that in work such as this, safety priorities mean that only suitably qualified engineers can work on electricity network infrastructure. The military resource cannot support the restoration of electricity supplies, and network distribution operators have confirmed that military assistance is not necessary in this case.

My Lords, can the Minister give us some idea of how much it would cost to put all these power lines underground?

I do not have that figure to hand. The noble Lord, with his work on infrastructure, will know that the cost of putting power lines underground is much greater than that of overhead lines, and these are difficult balances that have to be struck in any particular circumstance, particularly in rural communities or if the lines are going long-distance across the countryside. To put them all underground would be immensely expensive. If my officials have access to any figures, I will certainly let him have them.

My Lords, in responding to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, the Minister said that “we” need to ensure more resilience, but of course we are talking here about private companies, whose entire focus is on private profits. Will the Government ensure that regulators force those companies to build more resilience into the system?

They are indeed private companies, but resilience is in their interests as well as ours, and they are very tightly regulated through Ofgem. They will be seeking to learn all the lessons they can so that the system is suitably resilient in future.

I feel increasingly frustrated by the lack of appreciation of the fact that many residents in the rural north have felt utterly abandoned by the Government. What have the Government done practically to support people who have had no heating, no water and no hot food? It is not good enough—I am really sorry to say this. The Government knew the extent of the crisis in advance. The noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, asked about the Army and the Minister talked about the fact its personnel were not qualified electricians. Surely, however, the Army could have gone to rural areas and brought in gas heaters, hot food, generators—anything to mitigate the impact. It has been appalling for many people.

I know that it has been appalling for many people; I come from the area myself and have spoken to many MPs in those areas. I have been contacted by many residents. There are Members of this House who also live in the north and have suffered. With regard to the noble Baroness’s questions, we are giving all the support we can to the companies responsible for delivering this, with the appropriately trained engineers. In answer to her question about generators, more than 750 have been deployed since the incident began. Almost 1 million customers experienced disruption, but 950,000 have had their power restored. As I said, 20,000 people are still, unfortunately, cut off from electricity supply, but I know that engineers are working at this moment to try to get them restored.