The basis on which the government decided to axe the emergency coastguard tugs, at least from the Northern Isles and the Hebrides, is so flawed that it hardly needs pointing out here in Shetland. But it clearly requires strong emphasis in Whitehall, where the understanding of our remote communities is near perfect when it involves prospective tax revenues (oil) and utterly imperfect if public spending is at issue. For all his bluster about the oil industry being responsible for the stationing of a vessel like the Anglian Sovereign in our waters, the real sticking point when it comes to reversing this foolish decision is not shipping minister Mike Penning but his boss, the transport secretary Philip Hammond.
Mr Hammond is a Tory ideologue who is relentlessly focused on scaling down his budget, even when the decisions behind those cuts are bad ones. He obviously struggles with the concept of a public good: something that is paid for collectively as an insurance policy because private firms either cannot or will not provide it. It is just about possible to see a case for a charge being imposed on the oil industry and/or other operators to help fund tugs where private operators cannot be relied upon, but it must be levied by the government and the government tender for the service. If the contract needs to be “unbundled”, as suggested by MP Alistair Carmichael, so that public provision can continue in Shetland and Orkney and the Western Isles, that is not beyond the wit of government lawyers.
Mr Carmichael, whom Mr Hammond did not even have the courtesy to inform of the decision, has done well to convince his Tory coalition colleague of the need to look more closely at the decision. It remains to be seen whether this results in common sense prevailing or Mr Carmichael resigning.