The Scottish Secretary has announced a £3 million interim funding package to help emergency tugs continue operating in waters around the Northern and Western Isles.
The new deal confirmed by Michael Moore will be delivered on an exceptional three month basis while final attempts to secure a long-term replacement continue.
Details of the new arrangement are scant. However Mr Moore said he understood the feeling there was in the isles for the tugs to be retained.
“I am aware of the strength of feeling on this issue expressed by communities in the Northern and Western Isles,” he said.
“It is disappointing that efforts by local representatives to secure a commercial replacement for this service were unsuccessful before expiry of the contract.
“I believe it is worth a final attempt to try to find a solution, and the Scotland Office has agreed to lead the efforts.
“The UK government is to offer funding to cover replacement services for an interim period and I am speaking to local authorities today on how this should work.
“Work is already underway and we are hopeful that a replacement service can be put in place as soon as practically possible.”
But he warned: “Everyone must be clear that this cannot be a long-term solution. The majority of traffic in these waters is owned by private companies and we will be engaging with them and others to find a satisfactory alternative.”
Isles MP Alistair Carmichael argued the taking over of the issue by the Scotland Office and the three-month extension would help to ensure that officials in Whitehall gained a genuine understanding of the challenges of operating in the Northern and Western Isles.
“The announcement that the tugs will remain in service for at least another three months was welcome news indeed. We are not out of the woods yet, and there is still a lot of work to be done, but this is the most significant progress that we could possibly have hoped for at this stage.
“I have always maintained that the debate on this issue needed to be about marine safety rather than politics. The fact that Scottish ministers have now taken the lead in seeking alternative solutions will mean that those taking the final decisions have a real understanding of the challenges of operating in areas such as the Northern and Western Isles.
“Since the announcement that funding for the tugs was to be withdrawn, local councils, shipping groups and many of my constituents had made the point to me that commercial alternatives to the current service are simply not as readily available as some officials in Whitehall had suggested.
“Given the circumstances I think that the decision to extend the service was the correct course of action.”
Scottish rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead said: “Keeping the emergency towing vessels in service is absolutely the right thing to do to ensure Scotland’s mariners, coastline and marine environment remain suitably protected and I am pleased that UK ministers have listened to the case put forward by us and by all the other campaigners who were pressing for this.
“Scottish ministers have repeatedly called on the UK government to reverse their decision and retain the current level of provision until a suitable alternative can be introduced. It is now extremely important that the UK government identify and fund a suitable long-term solution otherwise the contract will come to an end bang in the middle of winter which would be dangerous. I will continue to press the UK government to live up to its responsibilities in this regard.”