Mr Speaker, with your permission I would like to make a statement on the continuing severe winter weather. We are facing exceptional conditions. It looks set to be the coldest December since 1910 with average temperatures 4 to 5 degrees below the norm for December. Many areas have had record low temperatures and snowfall has been the most widespread since 1981. The forecast is for continued severe cold and further snowfall through the coming week and over Christmas and the New Year.
Transport services have suffered extensive disruption in the last few days, and there is a likelihood of further disruption through this week. I recognise that this is particularly stressful just a few days ahead of the Christmas break, and I understand the frustration of those who are trying to get away or, indeed are trying to get home.
Transport services were also disrupted in the first spell of winter weather that came unusually early, at the end of November. That period tested the systems which, in some case, had performed so poorly earlier this year.
The then government asked David Quarmby, Chairman of the RAC Foundation and a former Chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, to conduct a review of winter resilience. His initial report was issued in July and a final report was published in October. It made 28 recommendations - some of them directed at central government, some of them at local government, and some at transport operators. Many of those recommendations have already been implemented, although some will necessarily take longer.
On 2 December, I asked David Quarmby, in the light of the weather conditions we were then experiencing, to conduct an audit of the implementation of his recommendations and to make any further observations he felt necessary. This is an independent report and I understand that David Quarmby intends to publish it tomorrow.
One of the principal recommendations of the first Quarmby report concerned salt: levels of stocks that local authorities should hold, dosage rates for optimum use of stocks and the acquisition of a strategic stockpile by central government. Local authorities went into this period with significantly better salt stocks than last winter and the Highways Agency, on the government’s behalf, had purchased 300,000 tonnes of salt to form a strategic stockpile, of which over 150,000 tonnes is already at UK ports with the remainder scheduled for delivery through December and early January.
Over the last few days, Highway authorities across England have been focused on delivering their planned salting and snow clearance to keep their local strategic road networks open. Together they had ready some 1.25 million tonnes of salt at the start of the winter. As Hon members would expect, salt usage has been significantly above the norm for the time of year and so my department decided 2 weeks ago to procure, as a precautionary measure, up to an additional 250,000 tonnes of salt, to replenish the strategic stockpile as salt is released to local authorities. Last Friday DfT offered 30,000 tonnes from the strategic stockpile to local authorities to provide reassurance over the holiday period. That allocation has been taken up and will be delivered over the next few days.
The strategic road network inevitably suffered severe disruption in the wake of heavy snowfall this weekend, but recovered reasonably rapidly and, with isolated exceptions, has operated effectively since Saturday afternoon.
Similarly, heavy snow and the formation of ice at very low temperatures has caused some disruption on rail networks on Friday and Saturday. But the rail industry has pulled together to keep essential services running, using special timetables where necessary, and I am pleased to report that commuter services into main conurbations this morning are close to normal. Transport for London have successfully followed their winter weather plans and have been able to run a near normal service across their network. However, issues with Eurostar are ongoing and have been well reported today (20 December 2010) including the impacts of very severe weather conditions in France.
Disruption due to weather conditions of this extremity is inevitable. The measure of resilience is the speed of recovery of the networks from such events. On this measure, the strategic road network and the rail network have performed broadly satisfactorily, having regard to the exceptional circumstances. The experience at airports, and Heathrow in particular, has however been different. Conditions have been difficult across North West Europe, with Frankfurt, Charles de Gaulle and Schiphol all struggling to cope at times. This afternoon it is being reported that Brussels airport will close until Wednesday because of a lack of de-icer. But yesterday’s whole day virtual closure at Heathrow, coupled with continued substantially reduced capacity, presents a very real challenge, from which the system will struggle to recover quickly.
I have spoken this morning to BAA and BA, its principle user. I am clear that BA made the right call on Saturday to cancel its flights in anticipation of the closure of the airport. Had it not done so, the scenes we witnessed on our TV screens in the terminals on Saturday night could have been much worse.
Heathrow operates, at normal times, at some 98% of full capacity. So when there is disruption caused by snow, or the need repeatedly to close runways or taxiways for de-icing, capacity is inevitably lost and a backlog builds up.
There is still a large amount of work to be done to restore Heathrow to full capacity and further snow and severe icing is anticipated over the next few days.
The immediate focus at Heathrow must be on maximising the number of flights with the available infrastructure and, in order to do this, I have agreed with BAA this morning a relaxation of restrictions on night flights for the next four days. Operating hours will be extended until 1am and arrivals for repatriation flights will be allowed through the night. Nonetheless, BAA advises that, with further severe weather forecast, Heathrow is likely to be operating at reduced capacity until Christmas.
Conditions in the terminals overnight on Saturday were very difficult, with some 2,000 passengers stranded. Once the airport has returned to normal operation, my officials will work with BAA to understand how this situation arose, and what they plan to change to ensure we do not experience a repeat. It is clear from my discussions this morning that some preliminary conclusions have already been drawn.
We recognise that the cost, both economic and social, of this level of disruption, can be very great. Winters such as this year’s and last have been rare in modern Britain, but we need to consider whether we are now seeing a step change in our weather that might justify investment in equipment and technologies to reduce the impacts of severe temperature and heavy snowfall. I will be assessing advice on this subject from the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Sir John Beddington, and we will work with transport operators to examine the business case in each sector for increased investment in winter resilience where that makes sense - recognising always that spending more on winter preparedness inevitably means there will be less to spend on other priorities.
This is not just about making sure that people can travel and goods get delivered. Disrupted transport links, combined with cold weather, increasingly impact on other essential services. In particular, they threaten the most vulnerable in our communities.
To help those most in need to stay warm in the coldest parts of the country, the government has, so far this winter, paid out some £355 million in cold weather payments, through an estimated 14.2 million payments to affected households. In addition, winter fuel payments for pensioners have been protected at the higher rate for this winter with 12.9 million payments made to those older people who meet the qualifying conditions.
We have also taken precautionary steps to ensure that the health services are well prepared, with local plans in place to deal with extra demands that this type of weather brings.
Despite these steps, weather of this severity can cause unexpected problems for many people, including those who would not normally see themselves as vulnerable but who might be in serious difficulty if their boiler breaks down or they can’t get to the chemist to collect their medication. The local government association will therefore be working closely with local authorities in England, with support from the government, to ensure that appropriate arrangements are in place across the country. Individual local authorities will be publicising information locally on how to access these advice services ahead of the Christmas holiday period.
Severe weather poses significant challenges to the energy supply industry. Difficult driving conditions have affected fuel oil and coal suppliers’ ability to make deliveries, particularly to more remote areas away from the strategic road network. This has resulted in delivery backlogs which suppliers have been working hard, in difficult circumstances, to reduce.
Distributors are doing all they can to prioritise deliveries to vulnerable customers and those running short of fuel. Working with the government, the Federation of Petroleum Suppliers has issued a code of practice to its members to help them prioritise orders to those most in need and to alert local authorities when they are aware of a risk that potentially vulnerable households will run short of heating oil.
The severe weather has also led to a very high forecast of demand for gas, expected to be more than 26% above the normal for this time of year. As a result the National Grid yesterday issued a gas balancing alert, to provide a signal to the market to bring on additional supplies and reducing demand from large users on interruptible contracts. There is no reason to expect any disruption to domestic customers, or to commercial customers unless they have interruptible contracts in place.
My Right Honourable friend, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has today (20 December 2010) issued a written statement providing more information on this issue.
Nationally, we will continue to do whatever is necessary to support essential services, and to provide advice to businesses and householders on steps they can take to help themselves and others. So, for example, we have published a ‘snow code’ to give common-sense advice to householders and businesses to help them safely clear snow and ice from pavements and public spaces, without fear of legal action. And as an emergency measure, we have relaxed the enforcement of EU drivers’ hours and working-time rules to mitigate the effect of the severe weather on critical parts of the supply chain that have been badly hit by the weather. We published guidance for local highway authorities on the range of actions that can be taken to ensure optimum use of salt stocks, and over the next few days we will publish updated technical advice based on the latest research findings so that all authorities can adopt best practice. We have also confirmed to farmers that they can use red diesel in tractors and other equipment to help salt and clear snow from public roads during extreme weather.
We are not yet through this period of severe weather. My priority at the moment remains working with the transport industries to return to normal as fast as the continued freezing temperatures this week permit, and with ministerial colleagues and officials from other departments, with whom I have been in contact with on a daily basis since Friday to continue to monitor the situation, assess the risk of further disruption, and take whatever action is needed. These arrangements will continue in place for as long as necessary through the holiday period. I can assure the House that wherever government action can help to ease the impact of severe weather, or mitigate its effects, we will not hesitate to take such action.
Mr Speaker, I commend this statement to the House.