Energy firms ‘showed no concern’ for storm victims

POWER bosses were accused of an astonishing display of neglect for customers yesterday as they tried to defend their response to Christmas storms that left thousands of homes without power.

Tim Yeo, chairman of the energy committee, lambasted network company chiefs. Picture: PA
Tim Yeo, chairman of the energy committee, lambasted network company chiefs. Picture: PA

Tim Yeo, chairman of the energy committee, lambasted network company chiefs for failing to show “any expression of real concern” as they blamed wind speeds and the scale of the operation for poor response times.

MPs heard “tried and tested” emergency plans were defeated by the severity of the storms and companies were unable to help each other because they were all stretched to the limits.

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But Mr Yeo lashed out at the six-strong panel for failing to take the problems faced by their customers seriously enough.

“You have lacked any expression of real concern for your customers,” he said. “It’s absolutely typical of a monopoly, particularly monopolies whose charges are not very visible to the customers who have to pay them.”

More than 150,000 homes were cut off after strong winds, torrential rain and flooding caused damage to power networks, with many left without electricity for up to five days.

About 3,500 homes in Scotland lost power due to severe Christmas Eve storms, with residents in Buchan, Banchory and Aboyne in Aberdeenshire and Fochabers near Elgin worst hit.

Scottish Hydro was able to re-connect a number of homes but nearly 2,000 were still left without power on Christmas Day.

Mark Mathieson, managing director of SSE’s electricity networks, insisted clean-up operations were much quicker than in the past. He told MPs: “It was just the impact of the event. It was a massive event. Certainly, we haven’t seen damage like this in the south back from the early nineties and even back to the great storm of 1987.

“I think the one thing I would say, and I’ve been in this industry for 25 years – we as an industry clean these events up much quicker than we used to. But we also recognise the impact that has on customers. We are sorry and I did go out to communicate with customers that we were sorry that they were off.”

Basil Scarsella, chief executive of UK Power Networks, said the organisation knew storms were coming but the wind speed was higher than expected.

The explanations did little to convince the committee that the energy companies were putting customers first.

Mr Yeo said: “I’ve heard nothing at all this morning which reassures me that you are taking this problem seriously enough to deal with the concerns of millions of your customers.

“There is no sense of urgency in what you said about any plans to step up your capacity to respond to severe weather, even though we now have quite clear warnings that extreme events are likely to take place more frequently in future.”

He added: “You’ve failed to demonstrate in my view adequate concern for the plight of your customers. That’s characteristic of monopolies whose activities are not very effectively scrutinised by anybody until now.

“And frankly, if your customers had the capacity or the freedom to switch to an alternative distributor, I am sure millions would be doing so as we speak.

“I have to conclude that you are exploiting your privileged monopoly position and you have displayed a neglect of your customers, which I personally find absolutely astonishing.”