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This debate provides us with the opportunity to update members on the many measures that have been put in place to enhance Scotland’s resilience for the forthcoming winter.
The winter of 2009-10 was the most severe for more than 30 years, and December 2010 was the coldest for more than a century. Since then, agencies across the public, private and voluntary sectors have taken significant steps to improve their resilience and that of the people who live and work in Scotland. Whatever the winter brings, building Scotland’s resilience to the consequences of severe weather is a key priority. Our approach to resilience is to identify and assess the risks and, where possible, to take or to encourage preventative action to reduce their impacts.
We can hope for a mild winter, but we must prepare for a severe one. More than half the people in a survey by the British Red Cross this summer said that they were more concerned about the impacts of severe weather than they were about any other emergency, and that they did not feel that they were adequately prepared. The Scottish Government is responding to that by offering better guidance and support in the lead-up to winter, and a higher-than-ever level of preparation across the public sector. Last year, the people of Scotland mucked in and helped out. I have no doubt that that spirit will be there again this year if it is needed, but we must prepare by doing more than just asking for that. We, as a Government, and all the public sector agencies must be prepared.
On Monday, the Scottish Government began its ready for winter public information campaign. Individuals and communities are stronger when they help themselves and each other. This year, we are making it easier for people and communities to take their own actions to prepare. Our first national resilience campaign has been developed in partnership with the British Red Cross and a wide range of other organisations.
Statutory agencies have a duty to respond, but they cannot be everywhere or do everything. Winter—no matter how prolonged or severe it is—should be no surprise to us, in Scotland. Everyone can take small, low-cost and sensible actions to be more resilient in their workplaces, at home, in their cars, in their neighbourhoods or wherever they happen to find themselves in the winter. The range of activities and resources that make up our ready for winter campaign, coupled with the relaunch of the ready Scotland website this week, will help to raise awareness of the simple steps that people can take and of the support that is available to them.
The Scottish Government has put in place significant measures to help households that will struggle to heat their homes this winter. They include the £12.5 million that was recently announced to fund insulation schemes across Scotland; the £30 million investment this year in the energy assistance package; £2.5 million to help households to replace inefficient boilers; and our commitment to extend to carers eligibility for our fuel poverty programme. An additional £5 million will ensure that the EAP delivers support for hard-pressed households through the cold weather that we might face in the coming months. Overall, our energy assistance package has offered advice to more than 200,000 households, has helped to reduce annual fuel bills by almost £12 million since 2009, and has delivered heating measures to more than 21,000 homes.
Since last winter, the Government and responders have prepared together, planned together and worked together to ensure that we are as ready as we can be to minimise the impact of severe weather. The winter weather review group, which the Scottish Government convened in the summer, published its report on Monday. It lists a series of actions that have been taken across the public, private and voluntary sectors and a range of services to improve resilience—particularly that of our critical national infrastructure. For example, the Met Office has improved its national severe weather warning service and we have invested more than £500,000 to launch the Scottish Environment Protection Agency floodline warnings direct service to help to improve information to the public with updates on various platforms.
We have improved the operation of the Government’s emergency arrangements by reviewing the experience of last winter. That has included revising the staffing and training arrangements for the Scottish Government resilience room and developing a new approach to sharing information between strategic co-ordinating groups and SGoRR, when it is active.
I stress that, although we are more prepared than ever, some disruption might still be unavoidable if severe weather hits. Disruption can happen at any time—we have just to look at the M25 today for evidence of that. The challenge for us is how we respond to severe weather incidents and how quickly we recover from them. I will outline some of the key steps that we have taken in that regard.
Transport Scotland has prepared for the coming winter with additional equipment and improved information for people who are on the move. From 1 November, 23 additional gritters will patrol the most strategically important routes before and during the morning peak when there is a risk of snow or ice and will add to our ploughing capability during snowstorms. Specialist equipment—an icebreaker, footway snowblowers and inverted-V ploughs—is being brought to Scotland to increase our winter capability.
Salt stocks are obviously fundamental to a successful winter on our roads, so as of 1 November more salt will be stocked in Scotland than was used over the whole of last winter. Transport Scotland will publish, on the basis of the daily forecast, the gritting plans for trunk road operating companies. We also have 70,000 litres of alternative de-icers that work in the severest conditions—for example, below 7° below freezing—when road salt becomes less effective.
Next week, Traffic Scotland will launch the trial of an internet radio service, which will provide 24/7 national traffic and travel information bulletins about the strategic motorway and trunk road networks. Information will be updated three times each hour during peak travel times and twice hourly off-peak, and the frequency of updates will be increased when there is extreme winter weather. The service will be available on computers and mobile devices, and via an automated message service on the traffic customer care line.
We have also set up the voluntary strategic alliance on winter tyres. This year, the industry has agreed to ensure an increased supply of winter tyres.
The freight industry has rightly expressed concerns about its portrayal last winter as being the cause of many road closures. Since then, we have worked hard with the police and freight partners to develop procedures for proactive management of heavy goods vehicles and other vehicles during severe weather conditions. Guidance has been developed, which will be supplemented by a freight Scotland hotline, so that HGV drivers can inform Traffic Scotland of traction problems that they experience on the network. That will help to inform the operating companies’ treatment priorities. A similar service will be developed for bus operators.
We have secured a £2.2 million package of investment by First ScotRail for winter improvements to the railways. There will be investment in modifications to trains, and there will be equipment improvements to make trains more reliable; for example, in the purchasing of additional plant and equipment, including improved gritting equipment for platforms and car parks; and in the provision of more permanent facilities for de-icing carriages, such as the train skirts—or kilts, as they were called last year—the polytunnels that were developed last winter, and high-pressure hot water de-icing equipment at nine main depots.
Network Rail has also enhanced its infrastructure by, for example, improving the moving points at key junctions, using remote monitoring of points heaters and providing protective blankets for points on rural lines, and investing in more four-by-four vehicles for operational and maintenance staff. Perhaps the road and rail difficulties of staff in getting to work during times of severe weather are not commonly appreciated. The trunk road operating companies and Network Rail have taken action to ensure that staff can get to work.