The Energy Secretary warned that electricity distributors could face “enforcement action” if a lack of investment was found to have contributed to power cuts spanning more than a week for thousands of people in the northeast.
But he denied that a North-South divide was responsible for the fact that around 3,900 households in the area are still in the dark nine days after Storm Arwen hit.
Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Kwasi Kwarteng on Sunday traveled to Weardale to meet with engineers, volunteers and members of the military responding to the crisis.
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He then met with operators and Northern Powergrid General Manager Phil Jones at the power distributor’s call center base in Penshaw.
Northern Powergrid on Sunday said 3,000 customers were still affected by the outages and said it was “hopeful” that the remaining work would be completed on Tuesday, as even more extreme weather conditions are expected to hit the area.
Speaking to the media at the end of the visit, Dr Kwarteng confirmed that he had spoken to “a few people” who had lost power.
When asked if he had apologized to those affected, he said: “I have publicly stated that having 4,000 people turned off for more than a week is unacceptable and my job is to try to make sure that does not happen.
“We will have, I hate to say it, we will have extreme weather conditions in the future, but my job is to make sure that we are as resilient as possible in the face of these extreme weather events.”
When asked what he could say to the people of the Northeast to reassure them that the region would be made more ‘resilient’ to avoid a recurrence of the crisis, he replied: ‘The physical challenge, the weather, the snow, the sleet, the rural communities that are quite dispersed, that presents an infrastructure challenge and my job is to make sure that we are much more resilient in the Northeast than in the past.
“In particular with regard to Ofgem and the government will launch a review of the exact amount of investment made in infrastructure, and if it turns out that there has not been enough investment, we have coercive measures, we can seek redress from the power companies.
“But I don’t want to prejudge this review, I’m not going to say we’re going to punish people, we just need to know exactly what happened.”
Grahame Morris, MP for Easington, said years of underinvestment in the region contributed to the slow response, as he called for a public inquiry into the situation.
When asked on Sunday whether the government could have acted more quickly in response to the destruction, the Secretary of State said: “I think it’s easy to say we could have done it sooner but clearly in a evolving situation, you need to determine exactly what the nature of the problem is.
“As soon as it was brought up to me by the local MPs, I think that Dehenna Davidson and Anne-Marie Trevelyan played an exceptional role in this file, as soon as it was raised [energy] Minister [Greg] My hands were raised, I made a statement in the House of Commons and answered questions on that statement.
“I spoke to the CEOs of the DNOs [distribution network operators]… I spoke to local resilience daily and finally came here myself to see the nature of the damage and what we can do to make the system more resilient.
“So I think we’ve done quite a bit actually, and we’ve been methodical and systematic in our approach to the problem.”
He denied accusations that his government would have acted faster if the blackouts had been consolidated in the south of the country. The secretary of state said more than 99.5% of one million customers who lost power had been reconnected.
“People reacted, we have set up and functioning critical infrastructures,” he insisted.
“What I said is unacceptable is the fact that there are still a few thousand people and for them 99.5% is no comfort – if you are not in power, few it doesn’t matter how many people are back, and that’s what I want to deal with and that’s why I’m here. “
Elsewhere, he said specific infrastructure challenges in the region were to blame for response time, not the government’s differing priorities.
He said, “I don’t accept that [the power cuts would have been resolved quicker in the South].
“The physical infrastructure, the layout and the landscape are very different.
“One of the particular reasons we have not restored the power supply is the weather conditions and they are very difficult (with) people in sparsely populated and very rural areas, which is a challenge. “
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