The coastguard’s emergency tug vessels are in line for an 11th hour reprieve just weeks before they are due to be axed as part of the coalition government’s cost-cutting drive – but only for six months.
Isles MP Alistair Carmichael is seeking to secure an extension to the current contract of that length while efforts are made to devise a scheme to hive off the vessels, known as ETVs.
He is hopeful Treasury ministers will back his calls as the government slowly comes to accept the need for the four tugs that are presently based around the UK.
Efforts have been ongoing for almost a year to retain the vessels, which were introduced following Lord Donaldson’s review of shipping safety after the 1993 Braer disaster.
The vessels had been due to be dispensed with once the current contract expires at the end of September, with the government insisting that state provision of emergency tugs was no longer a correct use of taxpayers’ money. It expected to save £32.5 million by handing over the contracts for emergency assistance to private operators instead.
Mr Carmichael said the extra time would allow the government to go to the spot market to secure a more cost-effective deal which could then give the tugs a long-term future.
“I remain of the view that ETV provision, by whoever, is necessary. I am still in discussion with shipping and treasury ministers about how that might be provided in a way which protects our coastline and provides better value for money for the taxpayer than has been the case in the past.
“It may be that some interim provision will have to be put in place, and it is on that which I am currently focusing my energies. I’m hopeful we will have progress very soon, as obviously the end of September deadline is rapidly approaching.”
The council’s political leader, Josie Simpson, stressed the importance of retaining the tugs earlier this week. The SIC has already pledged to explore all avenues to save the towing vessels.
“I think that this is an essential case. There is going to be a big increase in traffic around Shetland, with offshore developments to the west. There is a bigger need now for the tugs as when we got them in the first place.”
Meanwhile environmental group KIMO added its weight to the campaign against the decision to drop the tugs, insisting the risk of accidents and pollution will increase as a result.
A statement from the body said: “What will happen in less than six weeks’ time when the Westminster government removes the emergency towing vessels from service?
“For the first time since 1994 the UK will not have an asset capable of assisting any vessel in distress, countering pollution or tackling fires at sea and instead we will have to rely on the CAST system, an untested method of sourcing help from ships that cannot guarantee help and that is currently deemed not fit for purpose.”
John Mouat, of the KIMO International Secretariat, said: “The disgraceful decision to remove the ETVs from around the UK coast, which was done with no consultation, will leave our coastal communities and mariners at risk from accidents and pollution.
“At a time when other countries around Europe are increasing their ETV cover the UK government is going against the advice of its own cost benefit analysis studies and making a short-sighted cut that could cost local communities and the country much more in the long term.”