Shipping minister Mike Penning left open the door to an entirely different plan for the future of the coastguard service when he visited Shetland yesterday and heard strong views on the fundamental role the Lerwick station plays.
Mr Penning insisted the consultation being carried out by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which was last week extended until 5th May, was a “genuine” exercise in gathering and learning from those who work in and rely on the service.
However he came under fire from Shetland’s MSP for failing to save the emergency tug vessels, or ETVs, which are also facing the axe without any prior consultation.
Mr Penning was in Shetland to meet coastguard staff, SIC officials, the Lerwick lifeboat crew and staff at Sullom Voe oil terminal. This afternoon he was taken in the coastguard helicopter on a flight around the isles to see for himself the geography of the coastline.
Coastguard teams, he said, had submitted “detailed business plans” which needed time and effort to consider.
“There are actually very detailed business plans being put in by many of the coastguard stations as to the national future of the coastguard,” he said.
“They can’t come up with fiscal plans but, for instance, I was in Bangor in Northern Ireland when they presented me with a very detailed plan that took the coastguard from 19 bases to 10 with only one MOC [Marine Operation Centre], and I know there is a similar situation going to be coming from this part of the world as well.
“For those plans to be given the time they need it was obvious to me that I should indicate this was a proper consultation by extending it another six weeks.
“The key to this is not to pre-empt what might happen should the station close – let’s look at what the proposals are.
“We have to say, ‘are the proposals that were drafted at the start of this consultation going to be identical to what we have coming out the other end?’ We have to start with something.
“I’ve said I will listen very carefully to peoples’ concerns. I have been a sponge in every place I have been. We’re not just going through the motions. We are doing everything it says on the tin.”
The plans suggest closing either Lerwick or Stornoway station, leaving the surviving unit to operate during daytime hours only. Aberdeen would play host to the only 24-hour MOC in Scotland.
There has been ongoing concern that rural island groups like Shetland will suffer as a result, with unreliable communication links potentially putting lives at risk.
The total number of people across Orkney and Shetland who put their names to the protest against closure was tallied up this week at 12,589.
The petitions will be sent to the House of Commons transport select committee, which is carrying out an inquiry into the plans, to add weight to the campaign to save Lerwick from closure.
However Mr Penning was made aware of the strength of feeling during the visit.
“The coastguard configuration as it is at the moment were from the last reforms which were just left. There was no logic to them,” he said.
“What we need to do now is make sure we get it right, and make sure we have a service fit for the 21st century.
“Instead of people saying to me ‘everything’s perfect, just go away’ they are saying ‘it’s not, we know it’s not, let’s work together’.”
He insisted the resilience of communication links needed to be sorted out before any new service was introduced.
He said coastguard volunteers threatening to walk away from the service should wait until the consultation is finished before making a decision.
He added the coastguard now relies upon more volunteers than it did 10 years ago – despite recent claims from isles MP Alistair Carmichael that volunteers left the service in Orkney when its coastguard station closed.
“Volunteers don’t do it for the money. They do it to serve their community,” Mr Penning said.
“When there were reconfigurations last time similar things were said, and actually we now have more volunteers than we did then.
“I hope people will wait until the end of the consultation to see what the result is, and then state their decision as to what they want to do.
“You won’t find anyone within the MCA who says the existing service, in its present status, is fit for purpose in the 21st century.
“Everybody accepts we have to move forward. To do that I have to offer the sort of resilience to my emergency service that, frankly, all the other emergency services have already – even though we’re the only national service.”
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said retaining tug cover would help improve safety around Shetland’s coastline.
“The UK shipping minister is certainly in no doubt over why the Shetland coastguard station must remain. He got that firm message today from everyone he met, and I trust he will take the strength of that case back to London,” he said.
“But I remain extremely concerned about the threat to the salvage tugs in the waters around the Northern Isles. Our coast, especially with the new oil and gas deep-sea drilling to the west, needs this cover if an emergency were to happen.
“Lord Donaldson’s seminal report following the Braer, about keeping our seas safer, should be the starting point for any government. We have much work to do in making the case for retaining the tug cover around Shetland’s coast.”