Shetland’s coastguard station has been given a reprieve after the government re-assessed its plans for radical reform of the service.
However it has yet to be decided whether the station at the Knab in Lerwick will operate 24 hours a day as at present or during daylight hours only.
The coalition government has been taken aback by the scale of opposition to proposals by the Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA) to close 10 of the 19 stations around Britain’s coastline, including either Lerwick or Stornoway, with the loss of 220 jobs. More than 13,000 people signed petitions protesting against closure of the Shetland station.
During a visit to Shetland in March shipping minister Mike Penning insisted that the consultation exercise into the propopsals, which concludes on 5th May, was genuine and the government would have to react to people’s concerns.
A government source told The Shetland Times the fact that telecommunications links between Shetland and the mainland could not be guaranteed to function 100 per cent of the time was the key factor in the decision to retain Lerwick and may well mean the station remains full time. Ministers are also understood to be keen to keep an “arc” of functioning stations around the north of Britain’s coastline.
However, the source said no announcement would be forthcoming until after the transport select committee publishes its report into the coastguard proposals, which may be into July.
It emerged earlier this month that the committee had opted to visit Stornoway and not Lerwick to hear evidence, but chairwoman Louise Ellman said the inquiry would hear evidence on behalf of the Lerwick station.
Save Shetland Coastguard campaigners gave a cautious welcome to the news. However, in the absence of official confirmation they said the campaign against closure would go on, not least because it was important to ensure the station remained a 24-hour operation.
Local PCS Union representative Bob Skinley said: “We would re-iterate our opposition to the very idea that a vital, emergency service should operate on anything other than a 24-hour basis and this point still needs to be strongly made. We still have the opportunity to make representations to the transport select committee and the consultation process, people should continue to make their feelings known to them and the government. The fight to retain a fully functioning, 24-hour coastguard station in Shetland goes on.”
Orkney and Shetland MP Alastair Carmichael said: “Given that the secretary of state has committed to waiting for the select committee report on the coastguard it will, I think, be some time before we have any official word from the government. I was very pleased to hear Mike Penning say during his recent trip to Shetland that this was a genuine consultation and that he expected the final version of these plans to be different from the one they started with. There is still over a week for the consultation to run and I would encourage local people to continue making their views known in any way possible.”
Meanwhile, according to Mr Penning negotiations are continuing with industry over provision of a replacement for the coastguard tug based in Shetland, the contract for which is to be scrapped in September.
In an interview for the BBC Radio 4 programme Costing the Earth last week, Mr Penning said: “We have four [tugs around the UK coastline] and they cost the British taxpayer around about £2 million a year. The contract they are under is very bad for the British taxpayer and is not good for the industry either.”
He added: “Negotiations are taking place at the moment as you can imagine. On the south coast conversations are going really very very well because there was a large capacity of towing vessels … available on the south coast. More difficult on the northern sections because we have always picked up the tab.”
He said he was talking to Shetland Islands Council and other local authorities as well as the industry. “They accept that actually the way it is going at the moment cannot go forward, we cannot continue with this sort of contract, costing us so much money and everybody else benefiting apart from the taxpayer. The discussions will continue. But if I hold back, if I start saying I might change my mind on this the industry will just walk away from us again and I can’t have that.”
SIC convener Sandy Cluness, speaking to the same programme, said: “The government derives so much income from the oil companies for the work they do [to the west of Shetland] and the benefits are going to be to the national economy … removing a tug from somewhere north and west of Scotland seems madness really.
“He [Mr Penning] feels that the industry itself should perhaps do more to assist in difficulties in these waters. But of course probably the nearest tugs of the kind of size you would need available in the commercial sector are elsewhere because they have work to do in the [English] Channel and many other parts of the world.”
Mr Cluness said doing away with the tug might mean considerable loss of life over a period of time or environmental damage such as that from the Braer which led to the introduction of the tugs in the first place.