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It’s official – Lerwick coastguard station stays

“PUBLIC pressure works!” That was the call from the relieved staff of Shetland coastguard as the UK government announced on Tuesday that Lerwick’s coastguard co-ordinating station would remain open 24 hours a day.

However the local branch of the PCS union said their joy was tainted by disappointment that other stations would close and colleagues would lose their jobs.

The campaign to save the Lerwick coastguard station from the Maritime & Coastguard Agency’s modernisation plans dominated the first half of the year after last December’s proposal to close Shetland or Stornoway and convert the survivor to a daytime only service.

A huge public campaign rubbished the MCA’s vision, with extra weight being brought to bear by the House of Commons transport select committee, who condemned the plans outright.

However it was only when shipping minister Mike Penning stood up in Westminster on Tuesday and made it official, that local coastguard officers were able to believe that the battle was finally over.

A PCS spokesman said: “Naturally we are pleased the Lerwick coastguard station will continue to provide an emergency service for the Shetland and Orkney islands, however we are also extremely disappointed that other coastguard stations and the communities they serve were not so fortunate and remain earmarked to close.

“We opposed any station closures or compulsory redundancies and call on the government to listen to the professional coastguard officers, the mariners and public in those communities and to reconsider their decision.

“All the staff at Shetland coastguard would like to take this opportunity to thank everybody for their support during the campaign this year to keep the station open, public pressure works.”

Less fortunate are 159 staff working at the stations in Forth, Clyde, Great Yarmouth, Liverpool, Thames, Swansea, Brixham and Portland, all of which will close by March 2015.

Centres at Falmouth, Milford Haven, Holyhead, Belfast, Stornoway, Shetland, Aberdeen and Humber will be retained, as will the smaller London facility that manages the tidal Thames.

Mr Penning said the changes would result in a “modernised, nationally networked, fully resilient” service.

But shadow shipping minister Jim Fitzpatrick said the changes were driven by financial constraints.

Northern isles MP Alistair Carmichael battled for Lerwick to be retained as a 24 hour operation from his position as deputy chief whip within the coalition cabinet.

“Local people were strongly of the view that a round the clock service in both Shetland and Stornoway was necessary. I took that message to the heart of government and ministers have listened,” he said.

“I am also pleased the minister confirmed that coastguard officers will see improvements in their pay and conditions, and training for coastguard volunteers will be strengthened.

“Progress on these particular issues has been a long time in coming and the changes that will be brought forward are an important part of the reform plans.”

Less delighted were the Scottish government, who said Scotland had been sold short by the decision and lives could be put in danger.

As well as the closure of Clyde and Forth, the Aberdeen centre is to be downsized with the loss of staff.

Environment secretary Richard Lochhead accused Westminster of using Scotland as a guinea pig, putting saving money ahead of saving lives and called again for the service to be devolved to Holyrood.

“These stations cover large and complex areas of our beautiful, but sometimes dangerous, coastline and I remain unconvinced that a reduced number of stations will be able to provide the appropriate level of cover,” he said.

“This concern is exacerbated by plans to reduce staffing for some stations, including Aberdeen where we are extremely worried about the impact this could have on the ability to respond to a major oil and gas incident in the North Sea.

“More than 30 years of expertise in dealing with offshore incidents cannot be replicated elsewhere in the UK, so it is crucial this centre remains fully staffed at least at current levels and the central point for any response to a North Sea incident.

“As we have indicated throughout this consultation process, with some 60 per cent of UK seas, it makes no sense that Scotland is left with just a third of the MRCCs. This reaffirms our belief that the UK government must devolve this issue to Scotland.”