Following recent floods the National Coastguard SOS Campaign is urging the Government to rethink its planned modernisation of the service. Campainger Dennis O’Connor explains.
In December 2010 the UK Government announced consultation proposals for HM Coastguard.
At that time the intention was to reduce the UK's 18 Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres to just two 24-hour centres. These centres (MOCs) would be supported by only five sub centres that would be operational throughout "daylight hours only".
UK Coastguard Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCCs) co-ordinate Search and Rescue (SAR) along the UK coastline, as well as providing shipping data and a number of other essential services.
Announcing the cuts, the then Shipping Minister Mike Penning MP said: "Our seas are becoming busier, with larger ships and increasing numbers of offshore renewable energy platforms making key areas of our seas more congested. There are also increasing numbers of people using our beaches, coastlines and seas for leisure activities."
The proposals were overwhelmingly rejected by every Coastguard station, campaigners and by the Transport Select Committee who conducted a full investigation and concluded the modernisation proposals were "seriously flawed".
On July 14, 2011, the then Secretary of State for Transport, Philip Hammond MP, announced that the Government had looked at the responses to the original consultation and had examined the evidence.
He announced new consultation proposals which indicated 11 named Coastguard stations would be retained on a 24/7 basis but stations at Brixham, Portland, Swansea, Liverpool, Thames, Yarmouth, Clyde and Forth would close.
Campaigners believe that both public consultations were flawed and the impact of station closures on the MRCC and the coastal community were not fully risk-assessed.
The National Coastguard SOS Campaign group welcomes a move to modernise HM Coastguard and to offer better rates of pay to Coastguard Officers who are among the lowest paid Civil Servants, but insists that any modernisation plans should not include cuts which are financially driven.
On behalf of the group, I understand the need for austerity, but the financial justification for the proposals has not been made clear enough for people to have any reasonable understanding of how it is achievable.
Campaigners like me do not believe the Government should look to reduce public safety by the reduction of Coastguard stations. Plans to close MRCCs are not based upon any operational reasoning and are simply dangerous. This will lead to a Coastguard service not "fit for the 21st century".
Ultimately plans set out in the original consultation and the revised document for the second consultation will lead to loss of life if they proceed.
Current MRCCs are in areas of high maritime activity. The closure of any of these MRCCs will result in a loss of vital local knowledge which will not be available to Coastguard Officers outside immediate areas concerned.
Local knowledge is gained by years of service and experience and we do not believe sufficient concern has been shown by the DfT and MCA to addressing this issue.
The retention of, and networking of, all current MRCCs is a sensible and safe way to "modernise" HM Coastguard. This would mean that when an MRCC is busy dealing with several incidents, some of the additional workload including normal daily tasks may be shared by a neighbouring station who may not be as busy.
Thus HM Coastguard will benefit from the additional pool of staff and management which will in turn lead to less disruption. We at the National Coastguard SOS Campaign group do not believe that the plans to set up a Maritime Rescue Centre (MOC) for rescue co-ordination is safe or correct and that this will lead to a less resilient service than we have at present.
We insist that responsibility for public safety should be dealt with by experienced professional Coastguard officers.
As a result of the original consultation, responses were made which included viable proposals which the Government could consider, to co-locate government bodies within existing sites thereby potentially making considerable financial savings for the UK economy.
The revised proposals were released shortly after the end of the original consultation, and do not include evidence to confirm those suggestions have ever been considered
And MRCCs at Forth and Clyde have already closed despite assurances being made in the House of Commons that no stations would close until the new system had been rigorously tested for robustness.
With no plans to open the centralised system before 2014 campaigners like me are alarmed at the apparent haste which the MCA and Department for Transport are displaying by forging ahead with closures.
HM Coastguard should not be subjected to cuts – the safety of those at sea and in coastal communities remains a much more urgent priority than financially driven targets.
Local knowledge saves lives.
Details of the National Coastguard SOS Campaign may be found on our website www.coastguardsos.com or by following on twitter / facebook @Coastguard_SOS