SIC officials are to investigate the possibility of a judicial challenge to the coalition government’s unpopular decision to axe the coastguard tugs.
Councillors were warned all hopes of saving the emergency tug vessels, or ETVs, in their current form were now lost during a special SIC meeting in Lerwick Town Hall today.
Members discussed a planned response to the MCA’s proposals to cut coastguard services and potentially close the Lerwick station.
Head of ports and harbour Roger Moore said it had been made clear during a meeting in Edinburgh that the tugs would not remain after the current contract ends in September.
He said the focus now was for stakeholders to provide a solution themselves.
Possibilities include money being raised from the Crown Estate, or the oil industry itself.
However councillors remain unconvinced new contracts with industry can provide an adequate service.
“I was at a meeting in Edinburgh on 4th March. There was a presentation and it was made clear the decision’s been made – the tugs are going,” Capt Moore told council members.
“At the end of September, unless something is done quickly, there will be no tugs.
“The contract comes to an end. It has already been extended, and can’t be extended again because of European law, unless by special derogation.
“The spending review has said they would not renew that contract, although there was no consultation.
“There was one stakeholders meeting in Aberdeen, one in London, and there is to be one looking for industry and stakeholders to come forward with future solutions following a decision that’s already been taken.”
He suggested a statement be prepared alongside the responses, setting out the importance of the coastguard service to the isles.
Following today’s meeting it’s also hoped the transport select committee will visit the isles as part of its investigation into the unpopular programme of cuts, or at least allow councillors to give verbal evidence in London as part of the inquiry.
Councillors were unanimous in their opposition to the coastguard cuts.
Regular environmental campaigner Rick Nickerson instigated the call for a judicial review, particularly as there had been no consultation on the decision to withdraw the tugs. He was also behind the calls for the transport select committee to come here.
“I think we should ask our officers to look into the cost of a judicial review on the ETV situation. It would be appropriate for us to cover all our bases,” he said.
“I think we should ask the transport select committee to come to Shetland to hear evidence, and the council should ask to give evidence to the committee, whether it comes or not.”
Members welcomed the prepared responses to the MCA, although some felt they could have gone further in highlighting the potential danger to mariners.
Josie Simpson, who has spent a fair bit of time at sea himself, said the cuts were a “huge backward step”.
He wasted no time in moving the recommendations, insisting technology could not always be relied upon.
He criticised the MCA for its assertion that most incidents at sea happen during daylight hours.
“They say they’re maybe going to have the station open throughout the day, but a lot of the accidents that happen are at night.”
Betty Fullerton said the oil exploration in waters close to Shetland justified “stronger” comments in the feedback form.
“The safety aspect in the oil fields is paramount, especially when you think about what happened in the Gulf of Mexico. We could maybe strengthen what we’re saying in some areas,” she said.
Her comments were backed by Alastair Cooper, who said more emphasis was needed on the “Atlantic frontier west of Shetland”.
“Given the situation in the Middle East, there will be pressure on the UK to maximise its own resources,” he said.
“To give confidence to the community and the environment we need to retain both the ETV and the coastguard station.”
However Mrs Fullerton warned the argument against closures because of differing regional accents hardly stacked up in what was, after all, an “international stretch of water”.
Sandy Cluness said the argument was more relevant in the Western Isles where there was a heavy leaning towards Gaelic.
Jim Henry said losing “a few words” after a technical communication breakdown could mean the difference between life and death.
“A few words can make all the difference. It’s essential the Shetland station stays open,” he said.
Bill Manson was concerned about availability of tugs if they were operated by the private sector.
“There may be centres where these tugs are based but that’s no guarantee of its availability.”
Speaking after the meeting isles MP Alistair Carmichael said:”It’s fairly clear the contract [for the tugs] will not be renewed as it exists. What we’re working on is to ensure that alternative provision be found from September.”