Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng says firms could face ‘enforcement action’ over ‘unacceptable’ power cut time

The Energy Secretary has warned power distributors could face “enforcement action” if it’s found a lack of investment contributed to power cuts stretching well over a week for thousands of people in the North East.

But he denied that a North-South divide was behind the fact that around 3,900 households in the region are still in the dark nine days after Storm Arwen hit.

On Sunday, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Kwasi Kwarteng visited Weardale to meet with engineers, volunteers and armed forces personnel responding to the crisis.

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He then met call operators and Northern Powergrid chief executive Phil Jones, at the energy distributor’s call centre base in Penshaw.

On Sunday, Northern Powergrid said 3,000 customers were still affected by the outages, and said it was ‘hopeful’ that remaining work would be complete on Tuesday, when yet more extreme weather is predicted to hit the region.

Speaking to the media at the end of the visit, Dr Kwarteng confirmed he had spoken to ‘a couple of people’ who had lost power.

Asked if he’d offered an apology to those impacted, he said: “I’ve said publicly that having 4,000 people off power for more than a week is unacceptable and my job is to try and make sure that this doesn’t happen.

“We will have, I hate to say it, we will have extreme weather going forward but my job is to make sure that we are as resilient as possible in the face of those extreme weather events.”

Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng speaks to the media while he visits a Northern Powergrid call centre in Penshaw
(Image: PA)

Asked what he could tell the people of the North East to reassure them that the region would be made more ‘resilient’ to prevent a repeat of the crisis, he said: “The physical challenge, the weather, the snow, the sleet, the rural communities that are quite dispersed, that does represent an infrastructure challenge and my job is to make sure that we are much more resilient in the North East than we have been in the past.

“Specifically with regard to that Ofgem and the government are going to launch a review into exactly how much investment has taken place in infrastructure, and if it’s found that there hasn’t been enough investment we do have enforcement action, we can seek redress from the power companies.

“But I don’t want to pre-judge that review, I’m not going to do down the route of saying we’re going to punish people, we just need to find out exactly what happened.”

Grahame Morris, MP for Easington, has claimed years of under-investment in the region contributed to the slow response, as he called for a public inquiry into the situation.

Asked on Sunday whether the government could have acted more swiftly in response to the destruction, the Secretary of State said: “I think it’s easy to say we could have done more sooner but clearly in an evolving situation you have to work out exactly what the nature of the problem is.

“As soon as this was raised to me by local MPs, I think Dehenna Davidson and Anne-Marie Trevelyan have played an outstanding role in this, as soon as that was raised [energy] Minister [Greg] Hands came up, I made a statement in the House of Commons and took questions on that statement.

“I spoke to the the CEOs of the DNOs [distribution network operators]… I spoke to local resilience for a on a daily basis and finally, I’ve come up 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 more quickly if the outages had been clustered in the South of the country. The Secretary of State said that more than 99.5% of a million customers who’d lost power had been reconnected.

“People did respond, we did get critical infrastructure up and running,” he insisted.

“What I’ve said is unacceptable is the fact that there are still a few thousand people and for them, 99.5% is no solace – if you’re out of power it doesn’t make any difference what proportion of people are back on, and that’s the bit that I want to deal with and that’s why I’m here.”

Elsewhere, he said the specific infrastructure challenges in the region were to blame for the response time, not differing government priorities.

He said: “I don’t accept that [the power cuts would have been resolved quicker in the South].

“The physical infrastructure, lay out and landscape is very different.

“One of the particular reasons why we haven’t got people back on the power supply is the weather conditions and they are very challenging (with) people in sparsely populated, very rural areas, and that represents a challenge.”

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