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FORSYTH SETS UP WORKING PARTY TO REVIEW WEATHER CRISIS RESPONSE

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A working party to review the response to the recent severe weather conditions has been set up. Scottish secretary ...
A working party to review the response to the recent severe weather conditions has been set up. Scottish secretary Michael Forsyth said he was not looking for scapegoats but whether practical lessons could be learned.

Mr Forsyth said yesterday in answer to Commons question:

'I am happy to pay tribute to the dedication of all of the staff of local authorities, electricity and gas companies and emergency services who coped superbly with a very difficult combination of weather over the holiday period. This is the second year running that, over Christmas and New Year, life for large numbers of Scots has been severely disrupted by such natural events and we are well served by the people who work to make it possible for things to return to normal as soon as possible.

'Some snow fell in the days before Christmas but heavy snowfalls were experienced in parts of Northern Scotland on Christmas Day. The area worst affected was the Shetland Islands where a record depth of 35cm fell and where communities were cut off from each other and power supplies were severely disrupted.

'Throughout the country, temperatures dropped to sub-zero levels on 20 December but many mainland areas experienced severe conditions between 25 and 30 December when temperatures dropped in some areas to record levels. In Altnaharra, -27' was recorded and in Glasgow the temperature fell to -20', causing the River Clyde to freeze over. Both of these were the lowest ever temperatures recorded. The thaw set in on 30 December.

'The first problem to present itself was as a result of the severe blizzards on Christmas Day. Generally this caused disruption to traffic but this was not particularly severe or long-lasting. Exceptionally, the Shetland Isles experienced very heavy snow falls which presented particular problems for Scottish Hydro Electric due to major disruption of power supplies. Access to the disrupted power lines was extremely difficult and, in the circumstances, supplies were restored in very good time.

The severe frosts between 25 and 30 December led to very many parts of the water supply system freezing, understandable in record low temperatures. As a result there were numerous bursts, mainly on small diameter piping belonging to domestic and commercial consumers although larger pipes in the ownership of water authorities and industrial consumers also suffered. The incidence of such low temperatures whenever they occurred would undoubtedly have had a severe effect on water supplies. Over the holiday period, however, this effect was exacerbated.

'Many domestic, commercial and industrial premises were left empty with only limited heating, if any. Few systems were drained as would have been the practice 20 years ago since we have all tended to become dependant on the improved levels of heating and insulation of our properties.

'Sadly, but inevitably, in the circumstances an unprecedented number of bursts came to light during the rapid thaw on 29-31 December. These resulted in increases in demand on the water supply systems with which some could not cope. Demand rose to over 150% of average flow rates in some areas. While such peaks can be sustained for a period, the capacity of the distribution system and on-line storages cannot keep this up for days on end. Treatment works were stretched well beyond their capacity and inevitably limited numbers of consumers did not receive supplies where their properties were at high levels, at the end of major distribution systems or the system was drained by major bursts close by.

'The response of the various service authorities to these problems was very good. Contingency plans proved fully effective and the effort put into emergency planning by authorities in recent years paid off. I and my ministerial colleagues can confirm this at first hand from our visits and discussions with staff concerned.

'In particular, the water authorities in some areas were overwhelmed by calls by the public reporting problems with supplies. In extreme cases, such as Aberdeen, they were forced to cut off supplies to industrial premises, closed over the holiday, in order to maximise supplies available to domestic consumers. To cope with this situation, authorities called in staff to deal with telephone calls, monitor closely the distribution systems and deal with bursts on their own mains which were occurring at increased frequency.

'While some water authorities were stretched close to the limit, none sought assistance from central government. Inevitably there was great concern by the public about the impact of these events. The media were quick to highlight difficulties but, in so doing, sometimes displayed unrealistic expectations. Criticism, for example, of electricity workers in Shetland were particularly misplaced. Similar criticism of government and water authorities in the aftermath of the thaw was frequently made. The media has its part to play in getting through to the public reliable information about what is going on.

'Some people have suggested that no information was provided to the public. On the contrary, water authorities in the areas most seriously affected had been active in providing advice and information to the public - starting in the autumn, they published, as they do every year, the precautions consumers need to take against frost damage. Similarly, during the holiday period, representatives of authorities made appearances on television and spoke to local radio as well as issuing up to the minute news releases, including guidance for householders.

'The contribution in particularly hard pressed areas from local radio, particularly in the shape of helplines, was very effective and I willingly pay tribute to this initiative.

'Clearly there are considerable financial consequences for individuals and authorities as a result of these events. It is too soon to estimate the costs. In the case of public and private properties, whether domestic or industrial, the primary responsibility is on the owner to protect himself against risks of this nature.

'In most cases appropriate insurance is clearly essential. It is no part of the role of government to act as an insurer of last resort. However, there is help which the government can, and has made available during this difficult period.

'The Benefits Agency out of hours system has been available to provide assistance to vulnerable people. In appropriate circumstances grants or loans have been mad available to help with difficulties arising from the aftermath of the thaw and resulting burst pipes.

'Local authority services have responded, not least to those made homeless. For local authorities, exceptional assistance is available via the Bellwin Scheme to cover certain well defined circumstances. Grants can be made available to help with costs incurred in providing relief and carrying out immediate works. I and my right honourable friend, the chief secretary stand ready to consider sympathetically applications from authorities where the relevant criteria have been met.

'Lessons for the future have to be drawn from such events.

'I have established a working party to look for these lessons - not look for scapegoats nor carry out whitewash but to learn practical lessons. Representatives of agencies involved will be invited to participate. The report will be published. I will be happy to receive constructive suggestions for improved arrangements.

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