Will we survive the winter?

Water supplies are drying up, the National Grid can't cope, the sewers are collapsing and the transp

The clocks have gone back. The nights are drawing in. Dank November beckons, and a deepening chill clutches at the nation's heart. This year, winter holds terrors beyond Christmas shopping, nativity plays and festive visits from in-laws. The railways are disintegrating, while London's Underground has more or less given up already. On the roads, gridlock threatens. Water reserves are drying up in the face of unseasonal drought; if this lets up, we can expect flooding. A flu pandemic is due; if it comes, it will overwhelm our overstretched hospitals. And the lights may be going out - literally, as power cuts loom for the first time in a generation.

All this is before the remorseless descent of the wrong kind of leaves has got into its stride, or the wrong kind of snow has amazed us once more by turning up so inconveniently during, of all seasons, winter. It is before the contributions of terrorists, strikers, computer virus writers and political protesters have been factored in, though all of these are threatened, not to speak of extreme weather events prompted by climate change. A certain amount of trepidation is surely warranted. Or is it?

Papers have to be sold, so scares have to be mounted. We all like a grisly bugaboo to natter about. So is the impending Winter of Doom just a media construct, fabricated like so much else for our entertainment? Well, the New Statesman has conducted its own in-depth investigation. Every aspect of the infrastructural robustness of the United Kingdom has been subjected to intense scrutiny. And, folks, the message is this: it's much worse than you think.

More than anything else, it is the threat to electricity, the lifeblood of the modern world, that is now fraying nerves. Londoners may not have been reassured to receive a mailshot the other day from EDF Energy, the hitherto unknown organisation that looks after the capital's wiring. It provided stickers bearing the number of a blackout hotline and a five-point power cut survival guide ("Switch off electric cookers to avoid accidents when the supply resumes"). Not without cause.

Reliable electricity supplies depend on having plenty of power stations, robust transmission lines and enough engineers to mend them when they fail. A generating system should have at least 25 per cent spare capacity to handle breakdowns and demand spikes. Britain used to have 35 per cent; the figure now hovers a little above 15 per cent. Our transmission system is so ropy that around 350 megawatt hours of power go missing every year. Yet maintenance teams have been ravaged. In less challenging times, Northumberland and Durham had 42 line engineers to deal with emergencies; now the area has four.

On 10 December last year, when two power stations broke down during a cold snap, the country escaped a complete power meltdown by the skin of its teeth. This winter, we may not be so lucky, as demand continues to increase while supply remains fragile. Even the industry's bosses no longer promise that supply is secure, yet back-up arrangements are sketchy to say the least. When power to the ventilation system at St George's Hospital in south London failed in July, seven of its 20 operating theatres closed.

This part of the picture you may have more or less grasped. You have doubtless also heard that much of our water supply pours into the ground out of holes in our aged pipework, and that we really ought to have a clutch of new reservoirs, if not desalination plants. You may not realise, however, that our gas infrastructure is also giving rise to concern. Transco, the former division of British Gas that is responsible for it, reckons the system needs £5.4bn of investment over the next five years. The number of gas escapes is growing fast according to the unions, which say hundreds of extra engineers are needed. There have been interruptions to gas supplies twice this year already.

You may also have missed the news that the sewer system is on the point of collapse. Out of more than 186,000 miles of mainly aged sewers, just 241 miles were replaced or upgraded last year. Only a fifth of our sewers are regularly inspected. The rest get attention only when something goes wrong. Last year there were 5,300 flooding incidents in the public sewers, and microbiological pollution frequently infects the water table.

You probably know much more than you want to about the failings of Britain's railways. Still, perhaps you were not aware that crushed leaves on the line may not simply delay your train; they can block the signal that transmits its location through the rails, so that it disappears completely from the Fat Controller's control panel and is in effect lost to the world. The idea that the road network could host a disaster even greater than anything rail has so far managed may also surprise you. None the less, special emergency units armed with life-saving equipment are being set up to cope with possible motorway snarl-ups that could leave thousands stranded in their cars without heat, food or water. As our roads grow ever more congested, gridlock already occurs locally at least once a week. Apparently it would take merely the wrong accident in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong weather to precipitate Armageddon.

Oh well, you may be thinking, it was ever thus. Our infrastructure may be crummy, but we've survived grim winters before. Last January there was that dusting of snow on the M11 which shut Stansted Airport and trapped drivers in their cars for 20 hours. In 2001 we had the great floods. There were 40-foot snowdrifts in Kent in 1987, not to speak of the Three Day Week of 1973, the marine inundation of 1953 and the great freeze of 1947. Yet we're still here. Britain can take it! Why should this winter be any different?

But the way Britain functions has been steadily changing since the days of ox-roasts on the frozen Thames. And the more sophisticated a society is, the more its operating systems interconnect and the more vulnerable it therefore becomes to disruption, deliberate or accidental. In the past, disasters may have been more frequent, but they were usually confined to a single community. In complicated, computerised modern Britain, one seemingly minor malfunction can all too easily knock on to some other system, creating a perhaps more serious problem there, which may create yet more serious problems somewhere else. Meanwhile, as systems become more entangled, the ownership of their different components is becoming more widely dispersed, making crisis management ever harder.

A power cut may lead some people to switch on gas heaters. Yet around 40 per cent of our electricity is generated in gas-fired power stations. So the extra demand might cause some of these to be shut down, imposing further strain on the National Grid, affecting other power stations. This might turn a limited outage into a widespread blackout, with further dire and hopelessly unmanageable consequences. From such small beginnings, a domino effect with an unknowable outcome can develop. This is known in the disaster industry as "cascade".

Chris Wright, who heads a team looking into "new security issues" at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, has to think about such things. He cheerily plots a scenario that starts with a power line being blown down. Snowballing power cuts take out traffic lights. This triggers urban gridlock, which spreads to trunk roads, lasts for days and is almost impossible to unravel. Distribution of petrol and food is threatened, as it was during the fuel protest. Hoarders empty supermarket shelves. Rumours spread. People stop going to work and try to move out of cities. Some find it difficult to get the necessities of life. Resentment mounts and public order breaks down. This requires a response, which provokes riots, and no-go areas develop.

There is no reason why such a chain of events should not coincide with a flu pandemic or public services strike. Any al-Qaeda or Real IRA sleepers who neglected to take advantage of such an opportunity would deserve to be stripped of their membership. Too little is known about exactly how our society works to model the consequences of such a situation. We do know, however, that the London Ambulance Service can handle only 500 casualties at a time. Still, you will doubtless be reassured to learn that the organs of state have created an impressive-sounding panoply of machinery to address the growing threat of civil breakdown.

Once a disaster becomes too wide-ranging to be handled by a single government department, the Cabinet Office's Civil Contingencies Secretariat is tasked to spring into action. Eager to test national preparedness, I rang in. Only an answering machine was available to receive my inquiry, but admittedly it was a Friday afternoon, when surely no well-brought-up civil emergency would have the temerity to present itself. Sadly, by the time of going to press, I had not received a reply, reassuring or otherwise.

Are you starting to panic? If not, perhaps there is something wrong with you. Or perhaps you are the type who likes pondering not the grim fate that awaits you, but whose fault it all is. Trying to attribute blame for the overall uselessness of everything is, after all, something of a national hobby.

A popular line - fuelled, perhaps, by a perverse mixture of inverted chauvinism and technophobia - has it that there is something terribly British about all this. We, the people who pretty much invented most of the modern world, are now hopeless at handling it (and a little bit proud to be so). But events this year have shown that Britain can no longer claim unquestioned pre-eminence even in the field of ineptitude. The lights have gone out not just in Blighty and in Italy (possibly an acceptable rival for basket-case status), but also in sensibly social democratic Scandinavia and technologically cutting-edge North America. Examination of the pipework under Ground Zero after 9/11 showed it had received no more attention since it was laid down in 1908 than its equivalent in Manchester would have done.

For many, the scapegoat has to be the tide of privatisation that has swept through the developed world. Thirst for profit is supposedly squeezing out investment in utilities as naked capitalism supplants civic purpose. The appeal of this theory is more obvious, yet it, too, is nonsense. Failure to invest in infrastructure is indeed at the heart of the problem, but this has little to do with ownership. The country's fabric rotted away as happily when it was nationalised as it does today under private stewardship. Indeed, it is public policy that still holds back the refurbishment of our utilities, even where they are in private hands. Recently, the Midlands electricity distributor Aquila decided it would like to replace its overhead power lines, since they are not strong enough to withstand the more violent storms that the region has begun to experience. Such projects have to be approved by the industry regulator, Ofgem. Aquila wanted to spend £100m a year on this scheme. Ofgem turned the plan down, insisting that no more than £26m must be spent. This story is being repeated over and over again throughout our privatised utilities. Why?

The answer is that what regulators want is low prices. Security of supply comes a poor second. Inevitable consequences follow. Generating companies used to be allowed to keep power stations on standby and charge customers the cost. No longer. Units have been taken out of service and lie mothballed as uneconomic while the threat of power cuts grows. The Blair regime is gravely concerned about "fuel poverty" and seemingly only slightly concerned about supply failure. But why is that? Politicians want to get re-elected, and are therefore eager to bend to our will. They act as they do because they suspect we care more about saving a few quid on our bills than about being properly protected against the threat of disaster. So have they read us right?

Every time a gross system breakdown shames the nation, copious outrage is given vent. Yet we show no sign of punishing politicians at the polls for the state of the country's infrastructure. Newcastle University's Professor Ian Fells, who advises the World Energy Council, explains this as follows: "People forget a power cut after a week. If you pass a crash on the motorway you slow down - but only for about 20 minutes."

Squirrels are prudent enough to forgo immediate gratification so they can lay up nuts for the winter. Humans, it seems, are different. We live for the moment, take our chances and deride those who worry about what the future may hold. Cheer up, mate: it might never 'appen. But it might.