Communications with its customers by Northern Powergrid, the DNO with at least 1,600 homes left still unconnected ten days after Storm Arwen devastated northern England, have been ‘completely unacceptable’, energy minister Greg Hands told Parliament this afternoon.
Replying to MPs’ urgent questions, Mr Hands revealed that, as he addressed the Commons, the DNO’s boss Phil Jones was on a call with Prime Minister Johnson and energy secretary Kwasi Kwarteng. Ministers’ dissatisfaction was being urgently and ‘strongly brought home’ to the operator, Hands said.
The minister said that of the thousands of English, Scots and Welsh homes robbed of supply by Arwen, 99.8% had been reconnected by this morning. Around 1,600 accounts had still to be re-connected, located mainly in the Wear Valley, surrounding the community of Eastgate.
“For this number of homes to be without supply so long after the initial disruption is completely unacceptable”, Mr Hands told MPs.
The minister said on two occasions last week he had toured call centres and re-connection operations undertaken in Aberdeenshire and County Durham. He paid tribute to engineers on the ground and call centre staff.
MPs on both sides of the house laid into Northern Powergrid’s tardy response. North Durham’s Kevan Jones lambasted the DNO for its poor information-sharing with local government, under established rules to alert the north-east’s Local Resilience Forum.
The DNO had declared its own internal emergency on the Friday that Arwen struck, said the MP, but failed to share its decision or necessary updates with the local resilience forum until chased on the following Wednesday by an alert county officer. Information even now, ten days on, was appalling and had made things worse, said Mr Jones.
Bishop Auckland’s Deehanna Davison echoed her Conservative colleague Richard Holden’s criticism of the DNO, including over what she called ‘Northern Powergrid’s five wasted days’. She asked what provisions were being made for the region’s ageing equipment in advance of Tuesday’s forecast arrival of Storm Barra.
Shadow business secretary Ed Milliband questioned why it had taken a week for the army to be called in, and why COBRA had not been convened after ten days. He quoted an unnamed Conservative councillor in Durham who had complained that a similar outage in the south would have had ‘everything thrown at it’.
He brandished reports prepared in 2013 after Storm Desmond cut supplies to 16,000 homes for forty-eight hours, which also highlighted poor communications, companies’ indifference and faltering equipment. “Significant improvements” had been promised then but had failed to materialise, said the Labour front-bencher.
Milliband called for an independent enquiry into the nation’s response to Storm Arwen, and not, in his words, a cosy investigation led by D-BEIS and Ofgem.
The minister defended his and his boss’ responses, and highlighted the exceptional circumstances of Storm Arwen. Storm force winds blowing in from the north-east, not the prevailing south-west, had been at their strongest for 35 years, he said.
Hands denied that DNOs had been preferring to pay dividends to shareholders over networking strengthening. Operators had invested over £6 Billion in eight years on infrastructure, he said.
Improved resilience of regional grids was a key objective of the government’s current consultation on future system operation, the minister said.