Lerwick’s coastguard station was pitched into an invidious battle for survival against its Stornoway equivalent today after a consultation exercise into which of the two should be closed was announced by the government.
Ministers had planned to declare on Tuesday that Lerwick, which employs 20 people, would be axed to save money but they agreed to further negotations and will now hear arguments about which of the stations has the best case for remaining open.
However, if the strength of reaction to today’s announcement is anything to go by, they will face major resistance to the either/or nature of the proposal. Anger is already widespread in the isles and elsewhere about the government’s decision earlier this year to dispense with the coastguard emergency tugs, one of which, the Anglian Sovereign, is based in Shetland.
In the statement the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said feedback would be sought on whether Lerwick’s station or its Western Isles counterpart should close by the end of 2014 as part of a drive aimed at saving £20 million over five years.
The plan is to cut the 18 rescue co-ordination centres around the country to two maritime operations centres, one in Aberdeen and the other on the south coast in the Portsmouth/Southampton area, and six sub-centres at Dover, Falmouth, Humber, Swansea, Liverpool or Belfast and Shetland or Stornoway. Staff would be cut from 596 to 370 and more volunteers would be sought.
Only the operations centres and Dover, with is role in policing the busy English Channel, would remain open 24/7. The other centres, including Lerwick if it survives, would be cut to daytime only, with hours changing with the seasons.
Chief executive of Shetland Fishermen’s Association, Hansen Black, said lives could be put at risk. “It’s very concerning from the point of view of the fishing industry that we could lose our coastguard station.
“We’re centred in the middle of some of the most prolific fishing waters anywhere in the world. We have boats of all different nationalities fishing around here and to lose our local coastguard cover would certainly have an impact, not just on our own fleet but on others too.”
Given that Shetland coastguard covered 36,000 square miles of sea, he said it was unacceptable for fishermen to rely on sometimes unreliable communication links to a far-off coastguard centre if they got into trouble.
“We’ve had a lot of experience over the last few weeks of communication links going down,” he said. “We would be looking for a retention of the current [24-hour] service.”
Former director of the SIC’s marine operations, Captain George Sutherland, said the plans made no sense.
“Certainly these proposals need to be resisted very rigorously. I have no view on whether Shetland or Stornoway should be retained. My view is they are both entirely necessary.
“Shetland is the northern-most extremity of the UK. It is quite clearly essential the coastguard station is retained.
“This is just another demonstration of successive governments’ sea-blindness and unwillingness to accept that there is a massive industry afloat in the northern area of the UK, and there is a need to provide safety cover.
“The consequences of shutting the station here could be very serious, in terms of life and property. If it was based on cost consideration this is an example of an authority knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
He said the suggestion of reducing operating hours was “laughable”, adding that most incidents probably occur in the hours of darkness.
“This is a particularly hideous method of trying to save a relatively small amount of money.”
SIC convener Sandy Cluness said safety in the seas around Shetland was no less important than elsewhere, especially considering the growing activities around these shores.
“The size of the fishing fleet is considerable here, plus all the action west of Shetland in the oil industry, and ferries, make keeping the Lerwick station very important,” he said.
“Plus, we get much greater storms than you get off Dover. The station and its 20 staff have co-ordinated many important rescues of seamen and such experience and knowledge could never be replicated from the mainland.
“That the coalition government should even consider such a proposal, together with the removal of the emergency tug, is totally beyond belief.
“It simply demonstrates yet another example of this government’s failure to recognise the unique situation of these islands at an important crossroads of the North Atlantic.”
He said he would be raising the matter directly with Mr Penning when he visits Shetland next year.
Isles MP Alistair Carmichael said he was pleased a way open had been found to retain the Lerwick station. He stressed he would be fighting the case to keep it open.
“There is now a period when Shetland has the opportunity to put its case for retaining its local coastguard presence, and I shall be working with local industry such as fishing, shipping and offshore oil and gas industries, and other local bodies to ensure that the case is the best one possible.
“I shall also be drawing heavily on the local expertise of the coastguard in Shetland.
“I believe that Shetland’s strongest case is one based on operational and strategic factors. The economic differences are not substantial.”
Asked if he believed there was a case to retain 24-hour operations from Lerwick he said: “If that case is there to be made we should make it, but the coastguard have been telling me for years that a redesign of this sort was going to happen.”
The consultation report argues the busiest centres handle over five times as many incidents as the quietest, with 30 per cent of all call-outs happening in July and August and 70 per cent of all incidents happening between 9am and 7pm.
These uneven workloads, it says, lessen resilience, hamper staff development and lead to higher than necessary staff costs.
In his foreword to the consultation report, shipping minister Mike Penning said the UK has more than 10,500 miles of coastline enjoyed by 200 million visitors a year.
Industries, shops and services depend of on ships for 95 per cent of visible trade by weight. The shipping industry contributes £1 million every hour to the economy.
The consultation exercise will run until 24th March. Anyone wishing to respond can do so by completing an online questionnaire, which can be downloaded from the MCA’s website on www.mcga.gov.uk.
Written responses can also be made to the MCA’s Southampton headquarters.