I want to update the Parliament on the impacts across Scotland of the severe winter weather that we have experienced over the festive period, and to give details of the tremendous work that has been carried out by the emergency services, other responders, local communities and individuals to mitigate the impacts of the storms during the past two weeks.
As I have seen for myself when I have visited areas that have been affected by flooding, there is no good time to be hit with flood damage, power outages, transport disruption and other severe weather impacts. However, over the Christmas and new year period such scenarios were particularly challenging for the families and businesses that had to deal with the impacts and for the people in the responder organisations that are tasked with dealing with the consequences. Our thoughts are with all those people—thankfully, small in number—whose Christmas and new year were adversely affected by the weather, whether through short periods of lost power, property flooding or disrupted travel.
Particular credit must go to the many hundreds of staff across the police and fire and rescue services, local authorities, utility companies and other key organisations, who sacrificed big elements of the Christmas and new year period to ensure a safe and secure festive period for so many people.
The Scottish Government resilience operation had already been active earlier in December, working on weather issues in partnership with agencies and organisations such as the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Transport Scotland, Police Scotland, power companies and local authorities, before we experienced the severe weather that impacted on the festive period.
Thanks to the resilience partnerships’ work across Scotland, responders were given an early warning by the Met Office, in the week before Christmas, of the potential for severe weather. That put all the relevant organisations at national and local level on alert and allowed them to warn the public and inform them of what was expected, what they could do to protect themselves and what mitigating action was being taken by the authorities, including the targeted deployment of staff and resources to the areas that were most likely to be affected.
The Scottish Government’s resilience room was activated and the emergency committee held 15 meetings from Christmas eve until this week, including on Christmas day, hogmanay and new year’s day, with involvement throughout from ministers across relevant portfolios and with close involvement from the First Minister. That co-ordinated effort, with the regular sharing of detailed information on the location and level of risk faced by areas across Scotland, helped to ensure that local authorities, the emergency services and the communities that they serve could put in place crucial protection measures and prepare for the worst of the weather impacts.
Such measures included the use of demountable defences in Oban, which stopped floodwater reaching the heart of the town, and the deployment of Dumfries and Galloway’s mobile flood pod, which I saw for myself last week and which provided flood protection equipment, including flood gates, to properties in Dumfries and Newton Stewart.
No one in the Parliament would expect Scotland to be immune from severe weather during the winter months. However, what we have experienced so far, although it is not unprecedented, has been particularly unusual. To compare the recent spell with the numerous periods of stormy weather in the past, the Met Office’s national climate information centre has done an analysis of the number of weather stations in Scotland that have registered winds over certain thresholds since the start of December. That suggests that December 2013 was one of the stormiest months in Scotland since January 1993. Temperatures for the month were well above average, especially in Scotland—indeed, for Scotland and for the UK overall, it was the mildest December since 1988.
With respect to rainfall, it was Scotland’s wettest December according to records dating back to 1910. Many areas saw nearly twice the average rainfall, and there were few dry spells that would have allowed saturated land to drain and high river, loch and reservoir levels to reduce. For example, Callander received some 540mm of rain in December—that is 21 inches of rain, or 240 per cent of the average for the area—with more than 20mm of rain on 18 days.
We will no doubt face further spells of challenging weather before winter is over. Vigilance remains the key word and our resilience operation will continue actively to monitor the weather and work with partners to identify potential threats and respond accordingly over the coming weeks.
A widespread flood risk was continually present across the festive period. Indeed, flood warnings have been continually in place for parts of Tayside since mid-December. As at 12.45 this afternoon, seven flood warnings and three flood alerts were still in place in Scotland, despite the relatively improved weather picture over the past few days.
Although most of the weather that we saw was in line with normal winter expectations, it was unusual to see front after front without a sustained break that would have allowed saturated ground and river catchments to recover from the abnormally high levels of rainfall. That effect was combined with the effects of tidal surges in the west and east, and, in places, very strong winds, which created periods of coastal flood risk.
Some smaller catchments are particularly responsive to severe rainfall events, as I saw when I visited Jedburgh in my capacity as a regional member. Parts of Dumfries and Galloway, the Borders and Ayrshire saw some of the worst flooding in living memory, while communities on large parts of the west coast, in the islands, along the various east coast firths and in the north-east experienced the damaging effects of storm surges, high tides and severe gales.
The joint SEPA-Met Office Scottish flood forecasting service was active in providing early guidance on flood risk to local responders, which was invaluable in allowing them to put in place measures to respond to potential flooding. Unfortunately, it was not possible to prevent flooding everywhere, but the efforts of our responders consistently helped to mitigate its impacts. I heard at first hand how important that early notification was during my visit to see the effects of flooding in Dumfries and in visiting Govan police station to witness the preparedness efforts against coastal flooding.
In addition to undertaking work proactively to support the emergency responders, SEPA engaged directly with the public through its excellent floodline direct warning system, providing flood warnings and alerts to the public that allowed them to make informed decisions about how to manage their own potential flood risk. Over the past month, SEPA issued a total of 360 flood alert and flood warning messages, which meant that there were almost 100,000 text or telephone alerts to customers registered with floodline. Since mid-December, SEPA has had 1,250 new registrations to its floodline service—an increase of 7 per cent—meaning that almost 18,200 people across flood-vulnerable areas of Scotland are now registered for that valuable service. It is an invaluable resource, and I encourage members to publicise it to further increase registrations.
I am sure that members will also support me in reiterating my thanks to emergency responders across Scotland. Despite their own personal commitments and desires for the festive period, they were consistently available and active in taking proportionate responses to identified flood risks and protecting our communities. That preparedness was essential and invaluable, but, in terms of flood risk management, it is only part of the picture. Next week, I will host a summit with local authorities and other key partners, such as Scottish Water and SEPA, at which we will take stock of the work that will culminate during the latter stages of 2014-15 to produce the first ever round of flood risk management plans. Those are informed by SEPA’s work on producing our first ever national flood risk assessment and the new flood risk and hazard maps that SEPA will publicise next week, which identify the sources and receptors of flood risk, including by mapping velocity and the depth of flows to inform local responders. That work will inform flood risk management strategies throughout Scotland and will support us in targeting efforts to plan and invest in the reduction of impacts in areas that are vulnerable to flooding.
Investment is essential to support efforts to manage and, where possible, reduce flood risk. In the light of this demonstration of the potential impacts that flooding can have on communities, businesses, transport networks and individuals, I reiterate that flood risk management is a priority for the Scottish Government. Only a relatively small number of properties have been damaged by localised flooding, and we have not experienced the significant damage or disruption that have been seen in other parts of the UK, to which I extend my sympathies. The benefit of the flood warning and flood risk management actions demonstrates value from our investment.
We have continuously maintained and protected our support for SEPA and, in conjunction with our partners in the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, we have maintained the element of the local authority settlement that is identified for flood protection. The Scottish Government has continued to invest in supporting actions to reduce flood risk, including protecting SEPA’s budget at £37.5 million and increasing it, in challenging financial circumstances, to £39.5 million in 2015-16. Local authorities can also apply for funding for large new flood protection schemes using capital funding worth £42 million a year. That investment is making a difference and will stand us in good stead. We will aim to maintain it as we move forward, recognising that climate change raises an expectation of more frequent severe weather events, not least because of recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projections of 0.26m to 0.83m increases in global sea levels, which would see our sea defences come under ever-increasing pressure.
Over the immediate Christmas period, around 26,000 customers experienced power disruption due the extreme high winds. However, the majority of those customers in locations right across Scotland were reconnected within a few hours and very few were without power for more than 24 hours. During the rest of the festive period, a small number of customers—hundreds rather than thousands—suffered power outages at various points but power was restored to almost all of them within hours, which was a remarkable effort given that it was achieved despite very testing conditions.
Both Scottish Power and Scottish and Southern Energy Power Distribution deal with harsh conditions every winter in Scotland and, as a result, they were well prepared for the situation that arose. The 875 linesmen, engineers, contractors and tree cutters and the more than 140 call centre staff who, in many cases, gave up their own time deserve our thanks for their efforts in very challenging conditions. [Applause.] Both companies deserve our praise and recognition for their tremendous efforts in Scotland over the festive period. My colleague Fergus Ewing has written to the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets to show the Scottish Government’s support for the efforts of Scottish Power and SSE, which must be properly recognised in the post mortem that Ofgem is currently undertaking.
Scotland’s transport network stood up remarkably well to the severe weather conditions and, through the swift action of dedicated staff, disruption was kept to a minimum. Inevitably, given the storm force winds and terrible sea conditions, our ferry services were worst hit, but operators tried to be as flexible as possible and to make journeys when it was safe to do so. That included CalMac Ferries taking the unprecedented step of running special sailings to North Uist and Harris on Christmas day and, again, we should recognise and applaud the public spiritedness of CalMac staff. [Applause.]
Transport Scotland’s traffic control centre was active in monitoring the situation. Keith Brown, the Minister for Transport and Veterans, was involved throughout, and the multi-agency co-ordination team was called up to help to manage emerging issues.
In recognition of the financial burden that severe weather incidents and their impacts can place on local authorities, on behalf of the Scottish Government, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth, John Swinney, formally triggered the Bellwin scheme on hogmanay.
As I said, the weather that Scotland has faced over the past two weeks may not have been unprecedented, but it has been particularly unusual and presented challenges for responders and the communities that they sought to protect. The same could be said about the response of the many authorities and organisations involved in keeping Scotland running. It was not an unprecedented response—they are all well practised in working in partnership—but it was unusual and, indeed, exceptional, given the scale of the response and the sacrifice of many who gave up their festive celebrations to make sure that others could enjoy theirs.
We always look to learn lessons, but we can be proud that when a severe test was presented Scotland’s responders demonstrated that they were resilient in the face of that challenge.