Friday 16th September 2011 ought to be remembered in Shetland for a display of just how ill-informed and incompetent government can be. The episode succeeded in making our own benighted councillors look like masters of destiny.
In response to a critical report from MPs on the House of Commons transport select committee, the government insisted that ending the contracts for emergency towing vessels (ETVs) around the UK represented good value for taxpayers’ money. With reference to Shetland, it then went on to say that offshore support vessels and the Sullom Voe harbour tugs would be able to take up the strain, so to speak. Furthermore, when the tugs go, coastguard staff will continuously monitor ships in search of those that might stop without apparent reason or behave erratically and if necessary contact owners and salvage companies to encourage them to act swiftly.
As mariners and many other folk besides already know, harbour tugs are not powerful enough to act as ocean-going rescue vessels. In the case of the Sullom Voe tugs, the two new vessels are currently operating under restrictions until teething troubles are sorted out, and the crews have just voted for industrial action. And, as coastguard staff were quick to point out this week, the description of what will now be required of them bears an uncanny resemblance to what they already do. Did ministers and civil servants learn nothing during the coastguard closure consultation?
The Treasury must act to provide funding so the tugs can be retained for six months while more appropriate options for this vital insurance policy for Shetland and other coastal communities are explored.