The head of the coastguard service has cast doubt on the long-term future of the emergency tugs once the new short-term contract has expired. Meanwhile, after a meeting with SIC political leader Josie Simpson Scotland Office minister David Mundell has re-iterated the coalition government’s refusal to fund the tugs in the long-term.
Chief executive of the Maritime Coastguard Agency Sir Alan Massey said he was “not totally confident” commercial operators would offer funding to continue operating the vessels after the interim three-month arrangement ends in December.
Speaking during a visit to the coastguard station in Lerwick Sir Alan said he was “hopeful, but not expectant” that the tugs, introduced following the Lord Donaldson report into maritime safety after the Braer disaster, would still be operating next year.
“I’m sure we will get an interim contract in place because the government said it will fund it. I’m not totally confident on previous showings – in other words the past year that has gone by with lots of talk but no money – that something will come up.
“Of course, the government has agreed to give extra time to let that happen. I’m hopeful, but not expectant.”
Asked if he was satisfied another incident similar to the Braer could be prevented if a permanent contract failed to materialise, he said: “Am I satisfied? No, I think the risk is always out there.
“I can’t say I’m sanguine about not having tugs here but, realistically, you’re never going to mitigate the risk completely.
“I’m not being a naysayer. The government has taken a view that these things should not be funded. That’s not to say we believe we don’t need tugs at all. The risk is there and tugs are a good, strong mitigator, but they are not the full answer.
“On the showing of the ETV working group to date, we’ve not been that hopeful that people will front up with the money.
“It might well be that following this extension that people will have a change of heart, but up to now they have not achieved that.
“I am not a hundred per cent confident they will come up with a solution.”
He argued against SNP criticisms that the tugs were still away after being taken south before the last contract expired on 30th September, insisting complaints that the isles were left exposed to a greater risk was “one of the myths that needs busting”.
“They [the tugs] were only ever a partial guarantee. We’ve just seen in New Zealand, tragically, a case where a tug would never have been able to help in a million years, where a ship just ran itself aground.
“As it happens now, while we’re waiting for an interim contract, coastguards are being very pro-active in watching what ships are doing. If one looks to be suddenly drifting close to rocks then the coastguard will get in touch and try to marry it up with a tug from whatever source.”
Sir Alan was in the isles to visit staff following a second round of consultation on modernisation proposals.
The first round focused locally on the proposal to close either Lerwick or Stornoway stations, leaving the surviving unit to operate in daytime hours only.
Both stations were saved following a long-running campaign.
But while both Northern and Western Isles stations have been saved, there is still concern among union members the revised plans could compromise safety.
Under “plan B”, the UK’s main operating centre, or MOC, is planned for Southampton. The proposal has re-ignited fears that local knowledge in far north and island communities could still be lost.
Last week 86 per cent of PCS union workers who belong to the coastguard service admitted they had no confidence in the plans.
Sir Alan admitted that was a disappointing statistic.
“It’s slightly disappointing that they don’t see what we see which is a vision of a far more effective and properly joined up national coastguard.”
He paid tribute to staff in the isles who “made a good case” to retain the station in Knab Road.
However he stood by comments made earlier this year that the initial plans to close either Lerwick or Stornoway would have been workable.
“I still believe that they are workable, but what we’ve learned from the first consultation was the relative risks of what we were first proposing. Ministers, and we, have taken the view we do need to mitigate some of those risks.”
His comments came as Mr Mundell held talks with SIC political leader Josie Simpson.
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Mundell said: “People have understood that there is a significant issue. We also have to understand that departmental budgets are under enormous pressure – there isn’t a day goes by where we can’t see, here in Shetland and across the United Kingdom, the global financial turmoil that is still ongoing.
“It’s simply not possible for the government to change its course in terms of having to bring the deficit under control – so we’re in a difficult situation which means that difficult decisions have had to be made. But that doesn’t mean to say there’s not an understanding that there is a significant issue. That is why we’ve embarked on the course of action that we have to get an extension, and within that time period try and come up with a permanent solution.”