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SIC backs western isles coastguard initiative

SHETLAND Islands Council has restated its view that retaining just one full time coastguard station in Scotland would put lives at risk and leave island communities vulnerable to communication failures.

As the consultation on changes to the UK’s coastguard service closes on Thursday, the SIC is submitting a 280 page document that says the proposed centralisation is a recipe for disaster.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency wants just one full time coastguard station in Scotland, supported by one daylight only station in Lerwick or Stornoway.

The council’s submission states: “Bitter experience has shown that centralised call centres do not deliver the best service and have, at times, placed individuals in greater harm.

“The ‘NHS 24’ call centre has regularly tasked medical response to the wrong settlements of similar names and occasionally to the wrong island groups.

“The ‘FiReControl’ system for England and Wales, which effectively proposed centralised call centres, has cost the public purse £435 million, with ongoing costs even though the system has now been scrapped.”

It adds that the removal of 22 experienced coastguard officers from Shetland would reduce resilience for the isles.

“It would leave the islands particularly vulnerable to communications failures between here and the mainland. The current system has in-built hard-wired resilience that allows the coastguard station to operate even when links to the mainland are severed.

“Under the current proposals, a loss of communications between Shetland and the mainland would leave the volunteers with only handheld radios and binoculars to respond to any incident within the area.”

While opposing the proposed changes, many in the community, including coastguard officers, recognise there is scope for the coastguard service to be improved.

This “constructive attitude” was already acknowledged by senior coastguard managers when they visited Shetland and the western isles in February this year.

On Wednesday, council convener Sandy Cluness gave his support to plans from The Outer Hebrides Coastguard Task Group (OHCTG), which includes Western Isles Council, for keeping three coastguard centres in Scotland open.

These proposals are for a 12 centre model across the UK, including six stations for England, two in Wales, one in Northern Ireland and three in Scotland.

Linking Stornoway, Lerwick and Aberdeen would create a Scottish ‘tri-service’ centre, increasing the resilience of each centre.

Under the proposals, Stornoway would have primary responsibility for the west coast, Aberdeen for the east coast and Shetland the north coast.

Mr Cluness said: “It is vital that the councils act together on this. We must not be divided. I fully support the initiative from the western isles for a three-centre model in Scotland.

“I would like to pay tribute to our hard working team in Shetland for putting together a full and comprehensive response for the consultation. One which makes clear that losing the coastguard station, and indeed threatening the provision of emergency tugs, will put shipping at risk and could cost lives.”

A representative of the SIC will travel to Stornoway on 19 May to give evidence to members of the UK government’s transport select committee, which is meeting there to consider the coastguard closure proposals.

The whole document can be found here.


Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021