The UK government has indicated that it may be willing to revisit its decision to axe four coastguard emergency tug vessels, according to Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael, amid mounting anger within the Shetland community.
Following a meeting with transport minister Philip Hammond this morning, Mr Carmichael said he felt the department’s newfound readiness to meet with local councils, industry, towage companies and other stakeholders “to explore ways in which tug provision can be maintained … albeit in a different form than that which is currently in place” represented a “significant advance”.
It is the first sign of a softening of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government’s position since news of the move – which it hopes will save £32.5 million over four and a half years – emerged last Wednesday.
Mr Carmichael, who is deputy chief whip for the coalition, said: “His [Mr Hammond’s] budget is obviously under severe pressure, but he accepts that the current arrangement – a ‘bundled’ contract with four tugs – was one which could be done differently and more cheaply if there were a more creative approach and … he is willing to explore the possibilities to see if [we can] maintain that coverage.”
He said it was too early to try and “second guess” what might come out of the discussions, but accepted it might involve asking the oil industry and other shipping businesses to come forward with resources.
“It’s going to be hard work, because the department’s budget is very tight, but we’ve got a foot in the door,” Mr Carmichael told The Shetland Times. “The significant advance is the department is prepared to engage and explore with local industries and local communities how cover can be provided.”
He continued: “From what I know of the present setup I believe that there must be scope for providing cover in local waters in a more creative, and cost-effective manner. It may also have to be that some of those sectors who rely most on this cover will have to be asked to meet some of its cost.
“In my view the first step could be to ‘unbundle’ the contract which currently makes provision for all four tugs in different parts of the country. This has served in the past to exclude local bids. This could well be one of these occasions when locally based provision could be much more cost-effective.”
It comes after Shetland Islands Council, along with its counterparts in Orkney and the Western Isles, the Scottish government and environmental body Kimo expressed outrage at the decision, dismissing the idea that there is sufficient private sector capacity to provide emergency assistance.
Dozens of people have pointed out that was contrary to Shetland’s experience during the Braer oil spill, which was the spur for the tugs being introduced in the first place following the Donaldson report on shipping safety.
The tugs’ importance was freshly highlighted on Friday when the Stornoway-based Anglian Prince was called to assist in pulling the £1.2 billion nuclear submarine HMS Astute off the Skye shingle banks it had grounded on.
On Wednesday, councillors vented their spleens at shipping minister Mike Penning over the “madness”, “total ignorance” and “arrogant attitude” he had shown in defending the decision earlier this week.
It was agreed that the cutback – to be introduced in September 2011 – was “foolish and unnecessary” and convener Sandy Cluness and vice-convener Josie Simpson are to take the case for retaining the tugs to the UK government and the European Commission.
* For full story, see this week’s Shetland Times.