Shetland’s coastguard station will remain open 24 hours a day following the publication today of revised plans by the coalition government to streamline the emergency service.
However campaigners who had fought to retain the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) building in Lerwick remain concerned that staff will be forced to re-apply for their own jobs.
They had been fighting against unpopular proposals to close either the Knab Road building or the station in Stornoway, leaving the survivor operating only during daylight hours.
Highest among the concerns raised was the issue of communications, which the government accepted could not be guaranteed to function at all times given the current technology used for links between the islands and the mainland. Fears were also raised about a lack of local knowledge should the stations close their doors.
The government recorded around 1,800 responses to a long-running consultation exercise into the plans. Locally, more than 13,000 people signed petitions against closing stations in the Northern and Western Isles.
Transport minister Philip Hammond today published alternative proposals which mean both stations will be retained full-time. The Shetland Times reveealed in April that the Lerwick station would be saved, but at that stage it was not clear whether it would remain a 24-hour operation.
The new plans suggest Lerwick and Stornoway should be among eight sub-centres which all operate round the clock, Aberdeen being the third of its kind in Scotland. Others further afield are proposed for Falmouth, Milford Haven, Holyhead, Belfast and Humber, with a small station in London also being saved.
A main Maritime Operations Centre is being proposed for Southampton/Portsmouth, with a 24-hour back-up centre at the existing site in Dover.
Other stations at Clyde, Forth, Portland, Liverpool, Yarmouth, Brixham, Thames and Swansea are due to close progressively over the next four years.
The new plans do not mention the emergency tug vessels (ETVs) which the government has also vowed to scrap from September. Their removal has been equally strongly resisted in Shetland and elsewhere in Scotland.
It is hoped future tug provision will come from the private sector – although calls have also been made for the Crown Estate to help keep the existing vessels.
Campaigners and union representatives who wanted to save the Lerwick station gave the news a “cautious welcome” today.
A statement released by the PCS union stated: “Staff and campaigners at Shetand Coastguard welcome the government announcement today that both the Shetland and Stornoway Coastguard stations have been saved from closure under their proposed cut-backs.
“We are pleased the government has bowed to pressure from the campaign, and look forward to taking an active role in modernising the coastguard service for the future. However we will need to study any new proposal in detail.
“We remain opposed to any compulsory redundancies and to any proposals that will jeopardize public safety. We are also very aware that whilst we may have survived, some of our colleagues have been given bad news today and we will offer them our support in their continuing fight.”
Local campaigner Alex Dodge, who works at the Knab Road station, said she was glad the campaign had been successful, but warned “the devil is in the detail”.
She said MCA staff would have to re-apply for their own jobs under the new proposals. “We are going to have discussions with staff on the situation and see how everybody feels,” she said.
Shetland Islands Council has been instrumental in the campaign to save the island’s coastguard station.
Convener Sandy Cluness said he was delighted to see the Lerwick station retained at last.
“It has been a hard fight but one that was conducted fairly and without in any way putting at risk other areas of Scotland where coastguard coverage was under threat.”
Political leader Josie Simpson paid tribute to the Save Our Coastguard campaign and the coastguard employees in Shetland whose jobs were at risk.
“This campaign has been conducted with great dignity and energy, and with huge support from the people of Shetland,” he said. “The coastguard employees who safeguard our shipping day in day out are to be praised for the job they do, their commitment to Shetland and the way that have fought to retain a life saving service for the isles and those who sail in our waters.”
Fishing leaders had warned the original proposals to dramatically curtail Scotland’s coastguard coverage would cost lives at sea.
Today chief executive of Shetland’s Fishermen’s Association, Hansen Black, said he was “absolutely delighted” with the news Lerwick had been saved from closure.
“Our fishermen are working in the heart of a busy sea area. There’s not just fishing, but we’ve also got a lot of oil-related activity taking place to the west of Shetland, as well as currently in the North Sea.
“With an increase in activity in marine renewables being planned, it’s great news we’re going to have a local station dedicated to protecting the waters around here.”
MP for Orkney and Shetland, Alistair Carmichael, said the news showed the government, of which he is a member, had listened to concerns about the proposals from the start.
“Everyone in government from the Prime Minister downwards made explicit from the very start of the consultation process that ministers would listen to the concerns that people had over the MCA’s original proposals.
“The announcement today shows that this was no empty promise. The shipping minister said on a number of occasions that he expected substantial changes as a result of the consultation and that is exactly what we have got.
“I have also argued for many years that the professionalism and hard work of our coastguards needs to be better reflected in their pay and working conditions. I am pleased that we now have the prospect of real action on this issue at last.
“Local coastguards ran a magnificent campaign which showed just how highly their professionalism and dedication is valued by local people.
“The strength of local feeling as demonstrated by the petition and turnout at public meetings was an enormous assistance to me in prosecuting the case at Westminster and in Whitehall.”
Shetland’s MSP Tavish Scott said: “Common sense has prevailed. It was inconceivable that Shetland wouldn’t have a 24 hour, seven-days a week fully operational coastguard station.
“As the world’s tall ships approach over the horizon, what better way to recognise Shetland’s unbreakable links to the sea, but with this welcome announcement?
“I pay tribute to the coastguard staff and volunteers across Shetland who have gone through so many months of needless worry.
“Their campaign, one supported by the entire Shetland community, has been well argued, constructive and ultimately successful.
“I trust that the MCA management who dreamed up these foolhardy proposals, condemned as inherently dangerous by a House of Commons committee, are now considering their position.”
The Scottish government’s rural affairs secretary, Richard Lochhead, welcomed the news, but voiced his disappointment that no steps had been taken to retain the ETVs.
“I am … disappointed there is no update on the situation regarding emergency towing vessels. We still have no idea how this vital service will be provided when funding is withdrawn from September, and I would urge the UK government to continue the existing contract until a satisfactory alternative is in place.
“This situation poses unacceptable risks to both lives and our precious marine environment and a better way forward must be established quickly. We will continue to press for adequate funding for ETVs.”
Responding to the announcement, transport committee chair Louise Ellman MP said: “Last month we called on the government to withdraw its proposals for the future of the coastguard service and to issue revised plans; it is positive that ministers have done so.
“In particular, it’s re-assuring that ministers have accepted our key recommendation to abandon any notion of ‘daylight hour’ coastguard stations. I am pleased these revised plans ensure all remaining stations will operate on a 24 hour basis – able to provide swift and expert assistance to people on local coastlines and in local waters, whatever the time of day or night.”