UK government’s ‘reckless’ closure of Scottish coastguard centres could ‘cost lives’

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By a Newsnet reporter
 
The UK government’s planned cuts to the Scottish Coastguard service could lead to “a loss of life” according to opponents of the decision.  The cuts will see the closure of the coastguard bases on the Clyde and Forth, but Shetland and Stornoway will now remain open.
 
The UK coalition has also announced that it will not now go ahead with the planned maritime operation centre at Aberdeen, meaning that Scottish rescue services will face dealing with an operations centre based in the south of England where staff lack local knowledge of Scottish coastal waters.

Eight coastguard centres across the UK will close, with a loss of 159 jobs.  The co-ordination centres at Forth, Clyde, Great Yarmouth, Liverpool, Thames, Swansea, Brixham and Portland will close by March 2015. 

The closures will leave the Firths of Clyde and Forth, the busiest shipping waters in Scotland, without dedicated coastguard centres.

Announcing the closures to the House of Commons, Shipping Minister Mike Penning said: “I understand, of course, that the closure of some existing co-ordination centres and the loss of some coastguard jobs will come as a disappointment to those directly affected.

“However, the decisions I have announced today will deliver the modernised, nationally networked, fully resilient coastguard service we require for the future while reducing costs.”

Mr Penning claimed that the cuts would give “better support for our coastguard volunteers” and “front-line rescue capabilities”.

Responding, Mr Steve Quinn of the PCS union which represents many coast guard staff said in an interview with the BBC that following the original consultation, the government was severely criticised for its proposal to open certain stations during daylight hours only.

In these proposals two maritime operation centres were to be kept open, one at Fareham in Hampshire on the south coast of England, the other at Aberdeen.  The Aberdeen centre was supposed to be upgraded from 31 to 65 full time posts.

Following this consultation the government has now allowed that the remaining coastguard stations will remain open 24 hours, but says that in order to do so it cannot afford to have two marine operational centres.  The government will now only go ahead with a single centre at Fareham in Hampshire, with Aberdeen losing out.

Mr Quinn said: “All the reasons we need one [a second centre in Aberdeen] in the first consultation document are still extant.  So the reason we’re not having one at Aberdeen now is purely down to cost.”

Aberdeen now faces a cut in its staffing level from 31 full time posts to 23.  Mr Quinn added:  “Aberdeen is going to be downgraded from its present status.  The fear we’ve got with that is that the only in-depth knowledge of the North sea oil and gas industry exists at Aberdeen. 

Now at best this will lead to dilution of this knowledge, at worst it could be lost altogether.”

Recently operational coast guard staff were balloted by the union on the government’s proposals.  Mr Quinn said that overwhelmingly staff have “no confidence” in the proposals and believe they will lead to “the potential loss of life”.

Responding to Mr Penning’s statement in the Commons, the SNP expressed grave concern over capability gaps that had been created in search, rescue and coastguard cover and called for responsibility over the lifeline services to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.  SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson MP said:

“The UK Government are putting lives at risk by carrying on with these reckless cuts which confirm that two out of five coastguard stations in Scotland will close.

“These closures cannot be seen in isolation.  There is already uncertainty about the future of emergency tug services, and UK Ministers have scrapped long-range fixed-wing Search and Rescue capability operating from the north of Scotland and are still considering the closure of the Air Rescue Coordination Centre at Kinloss.

“With ever increasing activity on Scotland’s seas – through oil and gas, offshore renewables, fishing and tourism – there are real concerns over the UK Government’s ability to manage the coastguard service.

“The UK is making really bad decisions for coastguard services in Scotland which raise real safety concerns.  We should make better decisions in Scotland and not leave it to London.”

West of Scotland SNP MSP Stuart McMillan, who has worked with the campaign to save the Clyde MRCC in Greenock and led a members debate in the Scottish Parliament on the issue branded the move to shut Scotland’s busiest coastguard base which employs 30 people at the end of next year as ‘disgraceful’.

Mr McMillan said:

“Closing Clyde is reckless and misguided and shows the UK Government continues to miss the point of local coastguard services.

“The UK Government’s claim that Clyde’s 2,500 miles of coastline can be adequately covered by other bases over one hundred miles further away is simply foolish, the closure is bad news for all who live and use the Clyde coast – for business or pleasure.

“Clyde’s waters see 10 million tonnes of cargo annually and have no less than 27 marinas. It is one of the busiest areas in the UK for ferry travel with 8.5 million passengers a year and the base for the UK’s nuclear submarines.  These cuts are totally irresponsible.”

Rod Campbell, MSP for North Fife, echoed Mr McMillan’s concerns.  Mr Campbell said:

“The Tory Lib coalition have failed Scotland and failed Fife.  The lifeline services of Forth Coastguard are recognised and valued here and the local campaigners told the UK Government as much.

“From the oil and offshore renewable industry, to fisheries and tourism the Forth and Scotland’s east coast are increasingly important parts of Scotland’s economy.

“This closure could have been avoided if, as we proposed, Coastguard services were devolved to the SNP Government but frustratingly, on both these points, the UK Government has had their fingers in their ears.”