James Kirkup

Who cares about a power cut in the north east?

Who cares about a power cut in the north east?
Firefighters survey the damage after Storm Arwen (Getty images)
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How long could you cope without electricity, dear reader? And how many days could you endure without running water? Imagine your home was without power or water for four or even five days. What would you expect to happen? How do you think your country and your government would respond to your plight? There’d be a bit of a fuss, right?

I mean, this is an advanced industrialised economy where we have, quite reasonably, come to take the supply of basic utilities as a given. If thousands of people were left without power, heat and water -- and in winter too – for the better part of a week, it would be a deal, wouldn’t it?

Actually, no. Not if those people were somewhere in the north of England. In that case, most of the country would barely notice, much less care. As of late on Tuesday night, tens of thousands of people in north Northumberland were still without electricity, after a power cut that began last Friday when Storm Arwen blew through the county with winds nearing 100mph. A fair few of them also still had no running water.

Four days, I suggest, is quite a long time to go without light and, in some cases, heat. Here I must declare an interest: members of my family are among those who have been worst affected, though their lights came back on during Tuesday.

By local standards, they’re fortunate. Around 20,000 homes were still without electricity last night, according to the local MP, Anne-Marie Trevelyan. She gave that estimate based on information she got from Northern Powergrid (NPG), the company that operates local electricity networks. Ordinary members of the public – or at least, the ones with the ability to communicate with the company – have found it rather harder to get such information.

NPG, incidentally, is mostly owned by Berkshire Hathaway Energy, part of the investment empire of Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest men. The business is regulated by Ofgem, the energy regulator, which sets limits on what distribution companies can spend on their networks. In its 2018/19 annual report, NPG – owned by a man worth $100 billion (£75 billion) – reported that it had underspent on its allowance by £104 million, or six per cent. The company said at the time that that the money would still be spent, in later years. I wonder if spending it a little earlier would have meant that fewer Northumbrians went to bed cold again last night?

Perhaps such questions will be asked and answered properly in due course, but neither I nor many in Northumberland will be holding our breath for that. Because the main lesson of Northumberland’s Storm Arwen ordeal is that no-one really cares about the place.

I understand that there is a lot else going on in the country this week: Omicron and its effect on Christmas is clearly consuming much attention. And I know it’s a small place, far away, about which we know little. But the fact that the situation in Northumberland is almost unknown to people beyond the north-east still strikes me as notable, and telling.

One thing it confirms is that the UK media as a whole has retreated, badly, from regional and local coverage. When journalists generate 'content' by sitting at a desk and staring at Twitter all day, it’s too easy to miss significant events in the boring old non-online world. Especially the rural bits of it.

As for politics, this has barely registered. Rich Holden, the MP for North Durham creditably raised a point of order in the Commons on Tuesday, but that’s not something that requires a ministerial answer. In response Speaker Lindsay Hoyle all but encouraged MPs to put down an urgent question that would allow him to summon a minister; hopefully that will happen soon.

In this context though, you’ll understand why people from the most northerly bit of England tend to a bit sceptical of promises to 'level up' the country. Many of them would be pleasantly surprised if those fine words just meant a few potholes got fixed. And let’s not even talk about widening the A1 all the way to Scotland – after all, it’s only been 29 years since a government first promised that, and we can’t rush these things, can we?

Some people in Northumberland wonder what would have happened if thousands of people in North Dorset or Norfolk or -- imagine it – North London had been cut off without power and water for four days and more. Would the Armed Forces have been mobilised? Would ministers have rushed to speak in Parliament? Is it remotely conceivable that such a situation could have gone almost entirely unnoticed in the imperial capital, London?

Yet that is what has happened these past few days in the place I still consider home. Northumberland, especially in its northern reaches, has always felt remote, somewhat cut off from the rest of the country. That’s generally no bad thing, and often a source of happiness. But rarely has that distance felt greater than in these recent, dark days.