Power firm faces fury after storm

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The Independent Online
WILLIAM ROBB is used to Scottish winters: as an Ayrshire farmer he has worked the land all his life. But last week was unlike any other he can recall. It left his henhouse, and his livelihood, in ruins.

Tens of thousands of Scots have endured the worst storm in 30 years. It took out power lines, destroyed businesses and left old people and children stranded with neither heat nor light. Four people died in an avalanche, a man was found frozen to death, and a climber fell 1,500ft to his death.

In the aftermath, the electricity supplier Scottish Power has suffered a ferocious battering from irate customers demanding to know why a company making more than pounds 2m profit a day could not reconnect them more quickly.

Across Scotland, people like Mr Robb are counting the cost of the disaster. "I cannot believe the devastation which surrounds me," he said. Worse than the mess was the news that the henhouse was insured against fire but not storms. "I'm finished. As if the past few years haven't been tough enough with BSE. The poultry side has kept us going. It's been 50 per cent of our business turnover.

"Last Saturday night, when my son, Alan, went out to put his car in the garage, he heard a loud banging and all the lights started flickering. Alan ran back in and told me the henhouse was collapsing. We went outside with torches and saw that one wall was already down and the roof had disappeared."

In the 120ft-long building the family kept 3,900 chickens. When the storm had subsided 1,000 birds were dead and the remainder huddled, terrified, in corners. More have since died of shock. "I phoned the fire brigade," said Mr Robb, who lives near Mauchline. "But like me, they were helpless. We had to stand back and watch as the henhouse collapsed in front of us.

"We had no electricity from Boxing Day right through until New Year's Eve and every time we phoned Scottish Power's emergency number we got an answering machine. We were luckier than most in that we have our own generator but the job it does is limited.

"The hens are currently laying everywhere, in dirty conditions and we are having to dump the eggs. It would cost at least pounds 40,000 to start again and there isn't the profit margin in eggs these days to do that."

At nearby Tarbolton, Matt Train, a nursery owner, also saw a life's work ruined by a whim of nature. "When I looked out of the window on Saturday evening things didn't seem that bad," he said. "But when we got outside we saw one of our large greenhouses had been completely destroyed."

This family, too, went without electricity for six days. Scottish Power, which made a pounds 785m profit last year, pledged that anybody still deprived of power by last Wednesday could move into a hotel or buy in hot meals and have the cost reimbursed by the company.

The total bill for damage in Scotland could exceed pounds 50m - the storm left houses without roofs, fences pulled up and car windscreens smashed by fallen chimneys. The Glasgow landmark St Stephen's Renfield church resembled something from the Blitz.

Efforts to restore power to 100,000 people have been condemned as piecemeal and haphazard. The electricity watchdog, Offer, began an inquiry on Tuesday into Scottish Power's handling of the crisis.

Scottish Power said 800 men had been dealing with blackouts right across Scotland. "Normally, just one area is hit," said a spokesman. "But we had 500,000 callers all trying to get through in one 24-hour period. We used helicopters to get staff to affected areas because many roads were blocked by fallen trees.

"Sometimes we can switch circuits to reconnect customers but when trees have fallen on the power lines, each incident has to be dealt with individually."