How MPs respond to hurricanes: A 1987 case study

MPs will once again be tempted to play politics with the weather this afternoon
MPs will once again be tempted to play politics with the weather this afternoon
Alex Stevenson By

How do MPs respond when massive storms batter Britain's shores? By bickering about who picks up the bill, of course.

The Great Storm of 1987 which shook Britain on the night of October 15th and 16th left 19 people dead. An estimated 15 million trees were blown over and the insurance industry was forced to pay out an eyewatering £2 billion.

Five days afterwards, MPs gathered in the Commons to hear a statement from Margaret Thatcher's then environment secretary, Nicholas Ridley.

This was a man whose tenure as environment secretary was also noted for his invention of the phrase 'Nimby'. But the Great Storm was a tough test. He tried to ride this out by offering a bit more cash to local authorities to deal with the clean-up. But it wasn't enough to placate many backbenchers.


Instead of being a moment when the great partisan divides of the country were put aside to deal with the aftermath of an extratropical cyclone, the Commons was as stormy as ever.

They argued about the politics of the storm in every way possible - and the issue became almost secondary to the great debates of the idea. Here's four examples:

1 - Local government funding

Virtually every other question is themed, in some way or another, on the funding implications of recent reforms by central government. Ridley had used his statement to beef up the 'Bellwin scheme', used to provide councils with extra cash for emergencies.

As he explained:

From time immemorial local authorities have provided for emergencies of all sorts, be it snow, flood, frost or gale, and it is only when the expenditure that they incur is above normal contingency provision that the government have come to their aid.

But MPs weren't buying it.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin) As the whole tone of the Minister's rather lofty remarks is that all local authorities should have a hurricane contingency fund, will he confirm that his own Department has set an example and that such a fund exists within his own Department?

Mr. Ridley: The basic premise of the hon. Gentleman's question was wrong. I said that all authorities should have a fund for contingencies. The point of the Bellwin scheme  is that authorities receive help over and above that level when the costs exceed the threshold. The hon. Gentleman may be deliberately trying not to understand or hear. If that is the case, the second part of his question does not arise because he muffed the first part.

2 - Public vs private

So much for local government. Here's a thoroughly barbed question from Labour MP Tony Banks, raising a completely separate issue of contention that remains controversial today.

Will the Secretary of State pay tribute to the direct labour organisations of London Labour authorities, particularly the London borough of Ealing? That authority was able to get its DLOs out by 3 am on Friday 16 October, when private contractors could still not be found. The DLOs made a sterling effort to clear up the damage caused by the storm.

What an innocent question, you might think. Back in the thick of Thatcherism and a country deeply uncertain about the relative merits of the public and private sectors, Ridley spotted its subtext a mile off.

"I do not wish to play politics with what has been a national tragedy, as the hon. Gentleman has done," he sniffed.

"I pay tribute to both direct labour organisations and private contractors, and to individuals of all sorts who contributed to the relief of the distress of Friday morning. I do not wish to distinguish between them."

3 - Spending cuts

Never mind the millions of trees cut down by the biting winds of the hurricane. One MP was determined to use the row over the failure to predict the storm for political ends.

Mr Dave Nellist (Coventry South-East): If the Secretary of State is serious about not playing politics with a national tragedy, will he have a word with those Tory Members who have sought in the past five days to make 737 the Meteorological Office the scapegoat of that national tragedy?

That's right. At least those Tory MPs hadn't singled out Michael Fish as a scapeweatherman.

Will he arrange for the Secretary of State for Defence, who is responsible for the service, to point out that in the last 10 years 1,000 jobs have gone, that the staff are working with an old computer, and that there has been a reduction in ocean-going weather ships? Is the pressure of cost cutting and of shuffling staff around like a stage army to continue?

It sounds horribly familiar, doesn't it? And Ridley responded in much the same way as the coalition has, by giving the question the brush-off.

His reply also revealed another classic political response to anything bad, though: the irresistible impulse to try and make sure that someone, somewhere, is investigating what went wrong.

I can make no comment about the Met Office. However, I understand from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence that the Director-General of the Met Office, Professor John Houghton, has already instituted an internal inquiry into the weather forecasts made by the Met Office in the period preceding the storm.

4 - The abolition of the GLA

Not really anything to do with it being very windy, but Thatcher's decision to do away with the Greater London Authority came under attack from one Labour MP (just one of three black MPs at the time, by the way).

Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham) Will the Secretary of State explain to the House how local authorities could have been expected to predict the hurricane when professional weather forecasters could not do so? Is he aware that the borough of Haringey inherited a number of parks — for example, Finsbury park — from the Greater London council that his Government abolished? The result is that the borough will incur additional costs in clearing up storm-damaged trees, costs that nobody could have forecast.

Ridley's reply was pure acid. "I agree with the hon. Member that nobody could have been expected to predict the hurricane," he said.

MPs also spent time worrying about the long-term impact of the hurricane. They showed a concern for Britain's mature trees which seems faintly ridiculous on paper, but was actually justified given the scale of the damage.

Such lamenting of the fate of much of Britain's woodland did not stop one Tory MP seeing an opportunity to get some cash in, however.

Michael Lord: Will he urge local authorities to do their best to advise those who have had their trees blown over in the gale, especially large mature trees, that the fallen timber may have some value? If they make a careful check, they will find that the value of the fallen trees will help to defray the cost of removal and will lead to the timber being put to sensible use.

Ridley: Many of the trees which have unfortunately been blown down have a considerable timber value provided that they are not cut into short logs. It will be important for those who have lost trees to try to preserve the trunks for the benefit of the furniture trade and for the benefit of their own pockets.

Kerchink.

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