HC Deb 12 December 1967 vol 756 cc208-11
Q9. Sir J. Langford-Holt

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the present state of the work of the Winter Emergencies Committee.

The Prime Minister

As the Answer to this Question is rather long, I will, with permission, circulate it in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

Will the right hon. Gentleman oblige the House by giving us a summary of the results of the activities of this Committee?

The Prime Minister

No doubt the hon. Gentleman will study the Answer, but I might now give one point from it. The Winter Emergencies Committee, which was set up in November, 1965, was to ensure, in particular, that the fuel and power industries would be able in successive winters to meet the load put upon them, which was not the case then largely because of long delay in deliveries of equipment from various manufacturing firms.

The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that the latest estimates are that the maximum output capacity of the electricity supply industry in an average cold spell this winter will exceed maximum demand by 12 per cent., compared with a calculated margin of only 2½ per cent, three years ago. A very similar position applies as regards gas for most of the gas boards, although there is no national grid for gas.

Mr. Peyton

Why does not the Prime Minister entrust the task of preparing a new National Plan to the Winter Emergencies Committee? He could then have it reviewed by the Prices and Incomes Board, and after that he could burn it.

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman should not under-rate the achievement of this Committee and all working with it in having secured this margin of capacity of 12 per cent, compared with 2½ per cent, three years ago. It is a very satisfactory achievement, and, when the hon. Gentleman has put away his joke book and studied the Answer, he will be able to appreciate more of the work done by the Committee.

Mr. Bessell

Is it within the scope of the terms of reference of the Winter Emergencies Committee to inquire into the failure of local authorities and others to deal rapidly with the emergency road conditions caused by snow over last weekend?

The Prime Minister

It would not have been possible for the Committee to go out and de-ice, sand and salt the roads, any more than it could have dealt with problems of icing at points and so forth on the railways. What is certain—my Answer makes this clear—is that one of the things all who have influence in these matters must ensure is that local authorities move more speedily and are ready to move more speedily. Even so, some of the conditions which certain authorities had to face, for example, on the South Coast, where there were large snowfalls or blizzards, would have been almost impossible to deal with immediately. But more needs to be done more speedily.

Mr. Maudling

How much margin of generating capacity would have been available if industrial production had risen vigorously in the last three years?

The Prime Minister

I should want notice of that question. There would still have been an adequate amount. The right hon. Gentleman should recall that he left us with an election boom, after years of stagnation, in which he had entirely failed to plan for electrical generating capacity or gas capacity to provide an adequate margin in the winter of 1965.

Mr. Palmer

Will the Prime Minister bear in mind that, because of continued commissioning troubles with new plant, it is probable that the generating position is not in practice quite as good as it may seem on paper?

The Prime Minister

This is the overall position, allowing for some of the difficulties which have occurred in commissioning. In 1965, there were some bad cases of breakdown at the very worst part of the winter. In the case of gas, there is rather more anxiety, I think, in two of the area boards, though most of them now have plant which is adequate, and also great progress has been made in increasing grid facilities between one area board and another.

Following is the information:

The Winter Emergencies Committee was set up in November, 1965, to ensure, in particular, that the fuel and power industries would be able in successive winters to meet the load put upon them by a normal and, so far as this is possible, an abnormal winter. Especial attention was directed to reducing the delays in the completion of gas making plants and power plants, to the extension of the gas grid and to ensuring that deliveries of plant and equipment from private manufacturers, which had fallen behind schedule, were speeded up.

In addition, attention was given to steps necessary to ensure that distributed stocks of coal were maintained at a reasonable level; that coal supplies could be moved to areas of need in winter conditions; and that special transport facilities, including helicopters, would be available for maintaining food and other essential supplies in remote areas normally cut off by bad weather.

When the work of the Winter Emergencies Committee was merged with the main Emergencies Committee of the Government, it informed me that the progress of plant buildup in gas and electricity had been such that, for this winter, given normal conditions, there would be an overall capacity exceeding normal winter peak load by substantial amounts. The latest estimates are that the maximum output capacity of the electricity supply industry will exceed maximum demand in an average cold spell this winter by 12 per cent., compared with a calculated margin of only 2½ per cent, three years ago. The margin next winter should be even higher. Comparative calculations are not possible for the gas industry—because there is as yet no equivalent of the National Grid—though almost all area gas boards should have adequate surplus capacity this winter, and, again, the position is expected to improve further by next winter.

Under the new arrangements, the work I have described, including that of providing for coal supplies and contact with remote areas, is continued.

The House will agree, not least after the experience of last weekend, that more needs to be done, particularly by certain local authorities whose areas may be suddenly affected by severe winter conditions, so that they may be ready to take with all speed whatever action may be required and possible. But to be able to make full provision in advance for every contingency in every area would be impossibly expensive, and hon. Members will be aware that even in countries normally subject to nation-wide severe weather conditions for many months at a time it is not possible to avoid disruption, frequently on a large scale, when blizzard conditions and abnormally severe snowfalls occur.

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