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News / Fear over future of emergency tug

Will there have to be another fight to keep the MCA emergency towing vessel Herakles in northern waters. Photo Shetland Coastguard

A FRESH community campaign to keep the emergency coastguard tug patrolling northern Scottish waters could be needed after chancellor George Osborne’s spending review this week.

On Thursday northern isles MP Alistair Carmichael warned the 37 per cent budget cut facing the Department of Transport by 2020 could threaten the future of the £10 million tug contract, which runs out next March.

Carmichael has written to transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin asking him to outline the government’s plans for the Orkney-based tug’s future.

His concern is partly based on the experience five years ago when the Maritime & Coastguard Agency was happy to abandon the emergency tugs to help the coalition government’s austerity drive.

In 2010 the government saved £30 million by scrapping the four UK emergency tugs put in place following Lord Donaldson’s report into the 1993 Braer oil spill off Shetland’s south west coast.

The northern isles tug was only reinstated after a two year campaign led by Carmichael, who was the deputy chief whip in the coalition government.

The MP admits that as a backbencher he is now in a much weaker position to fight to retain the tug if the transport department decide to jettison the service.

“I don’t have the same access to decision makers that I had then and I don’t have the same political influence,” he said.

“But even without being a minister I am pretty confident we have a strong case, we just need to know the force with which we need to deploy it.”

He said there were just a few months before the tug contract ends, making it a matter of urgency to know what the government planned.

“If the answer comes back to extend the contract for two years we don’t need to worry, but if the answer is less positive we need to be acting now and we need to bring together the oil industry, the Scottish government, the local authorities, the lighthouse board, all these different bodies should have a role to play,” he said.

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Carmichael highlighted this week’s incident involving a cargo boat drifting off Orkney as an example of the necessity of retaining the tug, which covers the northern and western isles.

Shetland Islands Council deputy leader Billy Fox added his voice to the MP’s concern, stating that with new developments west of Shetland the need for emergency safety cover had never been greater.

“The emergency towing vessel is absolutely vital for maritime safety, never more so as the oil industry goes west of Shetland into much more hostile conditions,” he said.

The Department of Transport failed to respond to a request for comment.

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