Political storm blows in after festive floods

The worst Christmas weather in years resulted in widespread damage to power lines, cutting off 150,000 houses and causing chaos at Gatwick on Christmas Eve. Around 130,000 houses were flooded and severe weather warnings continued this week.

Tim Yeo, chair of the Commons Energy Select Committee, said he was planning to summon the electricity networks executives to account for a ‘very slow’ response to the crisis, says Guy Chazan in the FT.

The criticism caps a year in which Britain’s energy industry has been caught in “an intense political storm” over a wave of sharp price increases, says Chazan. It looks as though the big power transmission and distribution companies, which own and operate Britain’s local electricity network, are next in line for a grilling.

UK Power Networks, which owns power lines across the south and southeast, was among the worst affected. Basil Scarsella, chief executive, acknowledged the company’s shortcomings, saying that “too many of our staff were away”.

Reports that “blackout boss” Scarsella was paid a salary of £1.7m last year and that the company’s Asian owners took a £135m dividend haven’t helped, says Jim Armitage in The Independent.

Meanwhile, the private-equity owners of Gatwick are under fire for the “festive chaos” after its contingency plans weren’t “up to the job”, says Robert Lea in The Times. Specialist inspectors from the Civil Aviation Authority have been sent to Gatwick to find out what went wrong when a power cut led to more than 100 flights being delayed or cancelled and thousands of passengers being stranded.

But are these companies exclusively to blame? “The water levels and the extent of flooding experienced significantly exceeded our flood impact projections and have never happened before in the 25 years that North Terminal has been open,” a spokesman for Gatwick said. Energy firm SSE said conditions were “some of the worst we have ever seen”.

In Kent the Environment Agency was accused of issuing an order to protect industrial units and high-street stores in Tonbridge, causing the flooding of the village of Yalding. David Cameron pledged to make flood protection a higher priority during a visit to Yalding when he was berated by an angry resident, says Robert Booth in The Guardian.

The “furious tirade” against the prime minister in Yalding made me “uneasy”, says Libby Purves in The Times. We all knew that bad weather was coming. Sometimes no preparation is enough, but communities should, and do, work together.

“We rightly expect life-saving emergency services, but the second rank of support – from utilities to local authorities – is never going to be perfect.” Not so long ago Britain was far more willing to “accept hitches and even admire those who keep things going”.