Boris Johnson faces calls for an urgent inquiry into the “appalling” response to Storm Arwen and the resilience of the country’s electricity networks after thousands of people were left without power for more than a week.
Local residents say they felt abandoned after the failure to restore power to more than 9,000 homes, mainly across the north-east and Scotland. MPs said it was a “national scandal” that the elderly and vulnerable had been put at risk in bitterly cold conditions.
Ed Miliband, the shadow secretary for climate change, said: “It is completely outrageous that thousands of people have been without power for over a week. People are being left in the most appalling circumstances but there has been an absence of government leadership.
“Communities in the north with their power cut off are being treated like second-class citizens. The government must get a grip on the immediate crisis and we need an urgent investigation to understand what went wrong, and to ensure that our power systems are never again this vulnerable to extreme weather events.”
Storm Arwen has been one of the worst in a generation, with electricity poles snapped and wires down across large swathes of the country. The Wye Valley, the Lake District, Aberdeenshire and Perthshire were among some of the areas most badly hit.
Opposition MPs say that after severe storms in 2013 the government said lessons would be learned.
Mary Foy, Labour MP for Durham City, said: “The response has been a national scandal and the storm has shone a spotlight on the lack of preparedness. If this had happened in the home counties, the government would have sprung into action and the prime minister would have got on his wellies and visited immediately. People have been freezing in their homes and it has put people at risk. My constituents feel they have been forgotten and betrayed.”
Some of the worst affected areas are supplied by Northern Powergrid, which provides power for eight million people. It says it has restored power to 98% of homes, but 5,100 were still cut off on Friday evening.
The company now faces questions over its electricity infrastructure, despite its proposals submitted to Ofgem, the regulator, earlier this year for extra investment in infrastructure.
Farmer Ian Backhouse, from Reedness in East Yorkshire, said there had been a lack of investment: “There are several rotten and leaning poles that are only a strong wind away from falling over.” Stuart Roberts, deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union, tweeted: “We are now seeing the devastating consequences of that lack of investment.” He said many farms were without power and the damage would take years to rectify.
Stephen Deakin, from Dissington, near Newcastle, told the BBC he had been without power for eight days. He said: “I understand it’s kind of an unprecedented situation but why did they not have a plan in place? Why were people not helped sooner?”
Kevan Jones, Labour MP for North Durham, said some residents have been told repairs have been delayed because of the challenge of finding the parts for ageing infrastructure.
He said Phil Jones, the chief executive of Northern Powergrid, should consider resigning over complaints by householders of the firm’s inadequate response. “They made the crisis worse by putting out the wrong information on when power would be restored to homes. We now need an urgent assessment of the resilience of the network.”
Major incidents have been declared in County Durham and Northumberland. The Ministry of Defence said about 300 personnel from the British Army and Royal Marines were supporting local services, conducting door-to-door checks on vulnerable people.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: “Our dedicated Armed Forces personnel are working side by side with civil authorities to provide essential support to communities impacted by Storm Arwen.”Ofgem announced on Friday it was launching a review into the impact of Storm Arwen, which will focus on the role of the network companies in maintaining the resilience of the system and their emergency response. It says it will take enforcement action against firms which failed to restore power quickly enough.
Residents can claim £70 for each 12-hour period they are without power, after an initial £70 for the first 48 hours. A £700 cap on compensation has been lifted.
Tim Farron MP, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Rural Affairs, said: “There is no time to lose on learning the lessons of Storm Arwen. Winter has only just begun and it is clear our infrastructure cannot withstand any more storms. The past week has been a scandal and the Government has been asleep at the wheel.”
Supplier Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks has said 950 properties were without power on Friday evening. Northern Powergrid apologised yesterday for poor communication with residents during the power cuts.
The Energy Networks Association, which represents the UK’s electricity and gas network companies, said: “Our focus remains firmly on reconnecting the remaining customers without power. It’s clear that we must continue to learn from events like these, to ensure we are prepared for the future.” The association says power networks have spent £730m on resilience since 2015.