The SIC has reacted furiously to the news that Shetland is to lose its coastguard emergency tug coverage in less than a year’s time as part of a colossal programme of spending cutbacks announced by the UK government today.
The 67-metre Anglian Sovereign towing vessel is deployed to assist broken-down vessels in and around the waters of Shetland and Orkney. But in an annex to the comprehensive spending review announced by chancellor George Osborne the government said it no longer believed state provision of such assistance was a correct use of taxpayers’ funds.
Ship salvage “should be a commercial matter between a ship’s operator and the salvor”, according to the document. But that drew an immediate and angry response from Shetland Islands Council harbour board chairman Alastair Cooper, who said he was “utterly surprised” and felt an element of “disgust” over the decision.
It is a particularly sensitive topic given the introduction of the emergency tug in 2000 came about as part of Lord Donaldson’s review of shipping safety in the aftermath of the Braer oil spill disaster in 1993. It followed intensive lobbying from isles politicians.
Mr Cooper said: “My initial reaction is total surprise to almost disgust, I suppose. We do not want a disaster to come on our coastline; I think this is a retrograde move. We’re looking to ensure activity west of Shetland is done properly, safely; the government is committed to safeness and yet they’re taking away one of the most important planks of that.
“We as a community lobbied very, very hard because we felt that had we the appropriate tools the Braer may not have happened. We’re very close to all the activity that’s going to be going on west of Shetland [and at the moment] we have the comfort of knowing that towing vessel is in the vicinity. After September next year we won’t have that comfort.”
All the rhetoric from the UK government in recent weeks, including from energy and climate change minister Chris Huhne on a visit here last month, has been that there is very little chance of a similar disaster to that in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year because the UK applies the highest safety standards to the oil industry.
But that rings somewhat hollow, Mr Cooper pointed out, following a move to take away “something which we had that’s out there to make sure we could deal effectively with whatever happened, be it an oil spill or whatever”. He added: “The government have a difficult task at this time [but] I think they’ve backed the wrong horse on this occasion.”
For full story, see this week’s Shetland Times.