Bizarre as it may seem, the Maritime and Coastguard Association [MCA] is hoping to justify the UK Government proposal – to which it has agreed -to close 50% of Coastguard rescue coordination centres at Liverpool, Brixham, Clyde, Portland, Thames, Swansea, Forth and Yarmouth.
The Government plan is to centralise incident coordination responsibilities and distribute the workload to quieter stations. For instance, this would see the busy Clyde Coastguard closed by the end of this year and its massive and complex sea area transferred to the responsibility of the quieter Belfast Station.
Belfast already has responsibility for the coast of Northern Ireland, including its sea lochs, between the northern coastal border with the Republic of Ireland at Lough Foyle and the eastern border at Carlingford Lough. Under the proposed rearrangements, Belfast would also take on Clyde Cloastguard’s huge sea area from the Mull of Galloway to Ardnamurchan Point – including the islands of Arran, Cumbrae and Bute and all of the sea lochs in the Clyde waterway system – and the Atlantic Islands of Islay, Jura, Colonsay, Gigha, Coll, Tiree, The Treshnish Isles, Iona, Mull, the Slate Isles, Lismore and Kerrera.
Much of this is in Argyll and the Isles, whose coastline is longer than that of France.
The complexity of this sea area is bewildering enough for those who live here never mind those who do not.
Local knowledge is, of course, vital in identifying accurately where a casualty is located in order to instruct a lifeboat or SAR helicopter correctly.
It is true that with the movement of coastguard staff around the various UK stations, there will be coastguards at the Belfast station who have worked at Clyde and will have had knowledge of this sea area. But that knowledge will not be current and may not be deeply embedded in the memory of the officer concerned.
Clyde Coastguard’s is arguably the most complex sea area in the UK – and it takes no more than five minutes with as bland and uninformative a document as a road map to establish this fact.
Coastguard campaigners are adamant that the planned amalgamation of areas of responsibility can only increase the risks involved. In some areas this risk will centre on the volumes of commercial shipping, In others, like much of Clyde Coastguard’s, the risk will centrally be to the leisure sailing sector which is a lively feature of such waters and coastlines.
Speaking on behalf of the National Coastguard SOS group, Dennis O’Connor says: ‘The planned closure of Coastguard rescue coordination centres is not based upon operational reasoning.
‘We are very concerned that insufficient consideration has been given to the affect that the loss of stations will have on coastal communities and on the safety of those who use the coast for recreational and commercial purposes.
‘The planned centralisation of incident coordination has been rejected by Coastguard officers and campaigners because essential local knowledge will be lost.
‘The Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) are pinning everything on the trials of (as yet) unproven technology to ‘capture’ local knowledge but with the first of the stations due to close in a matter of weeks it is highly likely that key knowledge will be lost’.
The MCA’s wish-list plan is so surreal as to make one ask if they have found a way to hoover the contents of a specific part of a serving officer’s memory into a data store and simultaneously translate them into digital format?
There is no substitute for local knowledge.
A data bank will reveal that there are three sea lochs called ‘Tarbert’ within Clyde coastguard’s area. It will not be able to tell which of these is the site of the distressed casualty. The location of these lochs is such that a mistaken instruction to a lifeboat could not be rectified in tie to get to the correct location unless the situation was very far from being an emergency.
Has the UK Government reshuffle enabled an informed rethink?
In the recent Cabinet reshuffle, Secretary of State for Transport, Justine Greening MP, was replaced by Patrick McLoughlin MP. At the same time Shipping Minister, Mike Penning MP - who has been a central figure in plans to close Coastguard stations, was replaced by Stephen Hammond MP.
Dennis O’Connor says: ‘The recent reshuffle has brought fresh hope that the new Ministers will adopt more of an open dialogue approach and will urgently reconsider the closure programme.
‘We have written to both Mr McLoughlin and Mr Hammond requesting a meeting at their earliest convenience in order that we may be able to assess the affect that the change in Ministers will have on the closure plans’.
It is certainly important for rational and informed decision taking that the new ministers should choose to meet with those who actually know the score on the impact of the current proposals at an operational level.
Mr Hammond’s CV betrays no experience of personal or professional knowledge of matters maritime or even marine. Although born and educated in Southampton, he was a city financier by profession and has been deeply engaged in politics since the late 180s. He is MP for Wimbledon, whose nearest coastguard station is some way away.
The new Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin MP, is from Staffordshire, trained in agriculture and from a mining family whose example he followed. He has no natural affinity with the maritime world nor, indeed, with the aviation world which, with the row over the third runway for Heathrow, is likely to be his most pressing concern.
The coastguard campaigners and those of us who know how important the coastguard service is, can only hope that both new ministers in this department will recognise the limitations on their understanding and see the wisdom of meeting and listening to the information from the coastguards.
Submissions to the Transport Select Committee
Campaigners fighting controversial cuts to the UK Coastguard service have submitted their formal response to the Transport Select Committee Inquiry who are examining the affect that closures will have on coastal areas.
Despite two public consultations, the National Coastguard SOS Campaign Group remain concerned that the plan remains dangerously flawed.
Submissions to the Transport Select Committee inquiry must be received no later than 14th September.
The SOS campaign group are urging maritime stakeholders and the public to submit their concerns.