Shetland’s coastguard station was a government announcement away from being shut this week. Not because it is no longer of critical importance for the safety of vessels in waters around the islands or of strategic significance because of its geography; no, the government had not even considered these factors when it pencilled in the closure. Rather, it was deemed too expensive and more expendable than Stornoway: the loss of Lerwick would have had less of an impact because unemployment is higher in the Outer Hebrides. Such is the peculiar and, from the viewpoint of seafarers astoundingly inept, reasoning of this coalition government.
Under pressure from isles and government whip MP Alistair Carmichael, transport secretary Philip Hammond delayed the announcement for two days, agreeing in the meantime to hold a 14-week consultation exercise into whether Lerwick or Stornoway should be sacrificed. While there may indeed be a case for modernisation of the coastguard service to reflect advances in technology, the MCA announcement yesterday was fundamentally about saving money (£5 million a year to be precise), cutting jobs (overall numbers down from 596 to 370) and increasing the number of volunteers (in line, presumably, with Prime Minister David Cameron’s “big society”, ie. small state). Playing off Lerwick against Stornoway, as SIC convener Sandy Cluness pointed out yesterday, is a disgrace. One has to hope shipping minister Mike Penning, who is due to visit Shetland next year to hear concerns about the loss of the coastguard emergency tug, will come to understand this.
Even if Lerwick does survive, watch hours are to be cut to daytime only. Among the figures published yesterday are those for the number of incidents dealt with. Shetland is at the low end of the activity range. But what about risk factors? As drilling activity increases west of Shetland, it is vitally important that a 24-hour station is maintained here. These hastily concocted proposals must be resisted.