FUTURE plans for the UK coastguard service are likely to be very different from the Maritime & Coastguard Agency’s current proposals, UK shipping minister Mike Penning hinted during a flying visit to Shetland on Thursday.
However the minister made it clear that the government would not bend on its plan to stop paying for the four emergency coastguard tugs that protect the UK coast from potential pollution incidents.
The government has received more than 1,000 submissions since the MCA published its controversial plan to close 10 out of its 18 coastguard stations, leaving just two 24 hour operations in Aberdeen and Southampton.
Mr Penning has been touring the country to hear views directly from coastguard staff, many of whom have been highly critical of the proposals saying that they would put lives at risk.
Last week the minister extended the consultation until 5 May to allow time to evaluate the suggestions that were pouring in, including some detailed business plans from individual coastguard stations.
He said that coastguard staff in Belfast had presented a suggestion to reduce the number of stations to 10, but using a different configuration to the MCA executive.
He added that Shetland was about to come forward with a similar proposal, that would see the more English coastguard stations closing while retaining more than just two stations in Scotland.
“We all agree that the coastguard service needs to be modernised, it needs resilience and it needs to have a proper pay structure, which they have been pursuing for six years,” Mr Penning said in Lerwick on Thursday.
“But I am convinced that what we come out with at the end of the consultation will not be what we came into it with.”
Individual coastguard stations in Belfast, Falmouth and Brixham had presented detailed plans for a redesigned national coastguard service, with one on its way from Shetland, he said.
“Some of those are in draft form at the moment and it was obvious to me that I should not only indicate we are not just going through the motions, by announcing a further six weeks consultation.
“If nothing else we are now having a proper debate and discussion about the future of a very, very important service which I am very proud to be the minister responsible for.
“I have been a sponge in every place I have gone, we are not going to just go through the motions we are actually doing what it says on the tin.”
The minister was equally adamant that he did not intend to budge on the decision to scrap the £32 million contract for four coastguard emergency towing vessels (ETVs) protecting the entire UK coastline from maritime disasters, such as the 1993 Braer oil spill off Shetland.
He said that the government could not afford to run an “insurance policy” for offshore oil and gas companies and that the industry needed to come up with its own proposals. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be any ETVs, it just means I won’t be paying for them,” he said.
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said that he remained extremely concerned about the threat to the salvage tugs after meeting the minister in Shetland.
“Our coast, especially with the new oil and gas deep-sea drilling to the west, needs this cover if an emergency were to happen. Lord Donaldson’s seminal report following the Braer, about keeping our seas safer, should be the starting point for any government. We have much work to do in making the case for retaining the tug cover around Shetland’s coast.”
Mr Penning spent the morning visiting Sullom Voe oil terminal before meeting staff at Lerwick’s coastguard coordinating station at lunchtime, where he saw for himself a complex rescue operation involving all three Scottish island groups.
The Buckie registered whitefish boat had grounded on Sule Skerry 60 miles west of Orkney on Thursday morning with three crew on board.
The rescue operation was coordinated by Shetland coastguard who tasked helicopters from Sumburgh and Stornoway to the scene. Stornoway arrived first so they airlifted the three men to Kirkwall, in Orkney.
Meanwhile the Sumburgh coastguard chopper returned to Shetland to take the minister on an aerial tour of the isles before he returned to London.
The 19 metre Reliant was still stuck fast on Sule Skerry, where a Northern Lighthouse Board work crew had raised the alarm. Rescuers hope the high tide at 7pm will refloat the vessel.