Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
The Blue Bell Inn, St. John’s Chapel, Co. Durham
The Met Office was bang on. On Friday 26th November, the storm hit, with winds approaching 100 miles an hour. The accompanying snow blanketed the landscape and blocked roads.
Local MPs were assured that things would be sorted in “a couple of days.” Short power cuts and downed lines are not uncommon in winter in the North Pennines.
However, by Monday last week, it was clear that there was more to this storm than we had initially been told, with helicopters from the Northern Powergrid swooping low over the remote hillsides to inspect the damage.
That Tuesday, I raised my first ever ‘Point of Order’ in the House of Commons. With my constituents now about to enter their fifth night without power and little clear or reliable information from Northern Powergrid, we needed pressure from central government to get Northern Powergrid to both communicate and act.
The following day the Energy Minister, Greg Hands, visited Weardale and the Business and Energy Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, made a statement in the Commons with members from all sides of the House raising constituency concerns. The same day, Durham County Council’s Local Resilience Forum kicked into gear.
On Thursday, the Local Resilience Forum requested military support, which was granted immediately, and the Army arrived the next day to help – a week after the storm hit.
The question being asked is: ‘would this have happened in the Home Counties’? In some ways, that’s a bit of an odd question to ask. Nowhere in the South East of England is as rural or as isolated in parts. Nor is it as hilly, as snowy, wet or cold. To put it in perspective, North West Durham and Bishop Auckland alone are roughly the same size in terms of land area as Greater London.
They’re not the same. And it’s true that people in our communities are more used to inclement weather; they are hardy and used to putting up with difficulties. But that’s too easy a get-out.
It also doesn’t explain how my constituents and those of my neighbours in Bishop Auckland, Hexham, Berwick and across the North East and Cumbria were left without power for not just a day or two, but for days on end. It doesn’t explain why it took five days for the local council to declare a major incident, and another day to request military assistance. The complaint of “This wouldn’t have happened down South” started to not just relate to the weather, but also the response from the authorities.
Storm Arwen hit hard – causing powerlines to be blown over on the coast or damaged by falling trees. In some inland areas – such as around St. John’s Chapel – freezing rain to form on the powerlines, turning the normal thin cable into something four inches in diameter.
In these circumstances, each 80-metre span of wire between wooden pylons weighed half a ton per inch of ice. The pylons snapped like matchsticks. Over 400 are having to be replaced across the North. An unprecedented number.
Northern Powergrid declared an internal major incident on the Friday night, but didn’t tell Durham County Council they’d done this until Wednesday. Five days after the storm. Would this have happened elsewhere? I doubt it. It’s unforgivable – and we’re lucky that people didn’t die as a result of it.
In some areas, the network is clearly out of date. Parts of the infrastructure are decades old and almost impossible to replaced, hampering the re-connection effort.
This led to one of my main secondary schools being unable to open until last Friday. Has there been underinvestment? A joint investigation by OFGEM and BEIS is going to do a lot of digging into this.
One of the things that I noticed upon becoming the Parliamentary candidate in 2019 was the amount of electricity delivered by over-head cables – similar to what you see in American films of remote small-town America – in towns and villages, not via underground supply.
To leave power more exposed, not to remote farms but in towns, in the parts of the country most easily afflicted by poor weather, wind and snow, seems absurd and is a relic of the pits and steelworks. It clearly needs to change.
Moreover, some recent policy also doesn’t recognise that solid fuel is not a “nice to have”, but an essential back-up. A wood-burning stove in Camden is a fancy unnecessary luxury. But if you live in a small village or a hamlet in North West Durham, you’re unlikely to be on mains gas. If the electricity fails and you’re not on mains gas then it’s not long before you’re freezing. It’s clear Government policy needs to recognise the unique nature of our most isolated and rural communities.
I grew up in the North Pennines and now represent a seat in those wonderful fells, hills and mountains that form the backbone of our country. I deeply dislike the all-too-easy get out from some of the “it wouldn’t happen down south” line. Too often it’s an excuse for inertia, poor local government, lack of ambition in education provision, a “give us a hand-out” rather than “give us a hand up” culture. Unfortunately, in this instance, I fear there’s something to it.
If we’re going to level-up, it starts with the basics; utilities and connectivity, and recognising the different needs of rural and semi-rural parts of our country. I won’t stand for my constituents being taken for fools or treat like second rate citizens. This should not be allowed to happen again, and the Government needs to ensure Northern Powergrid gets its act together sharpish, and get on board with what I am other MPs were elected to do: level up our country.