For months there have been rumblings of discontent among pilot boat men and tugmen at the port of Sullom Voe. Chief among the concerns raised by callers to The Shetland Times have been safety, or lack of it, following the reduction in staff numbers as a result of the council’s Ports for the Future exercise, and the deficiencies, as they see them, of the new port tugs which arrived from Valencia last year.
Suggestions that safety is anything but a top priority or that the tugs are troublesome have been met with polite denials by officialdom – and continued to be so this week.
Yet it seems clear that Tuesday night, when port control was left unmanned for the first time in 33 years, may turn out to have been a watershed: the level of anger and the number of those willing to risk their jobs to speak out, albeit anonymously, reached new heights following the decision to effectively hand control to Shetland Coastguard. The intervention of the former director of ports and harbours, George Sutherland, not a man given to glib comments to the media, suggests there is substance to the operators’ grievances.
It is in such circumstances that clear lines of communication between staff and those at the top of the council, including councillors themselves, should exist. It may be perception rather than reality, but the council appears to be displaying some its bad old secretive habits; it is not clear why, if there are issues, for example, with the tugs, they cannot be openly acknowledged and dealt with in a mature fashion. If the tugs are as effective as claimed, why not invite the media for a trip on board, for instance?
Cost-cutting is inevitable in light of the financial crisis, but it should never be at the expense of safety.