Kennedy: No short cuts in guarding the Coastguard

Tuesday 20th December 2011

By Charles Kennedy

The Coastguard is a crucial service for people in rural areas, and nowhere more so than in my own constituency. Last year, Britain’s Coastguard Coordination Centres handled more than twenty thousand incidents–up from fifteen thousand only five years before. The UK’s waters are busier than ever, so we need to be sure that the systems responsible for safety at sea are fit for purpose if we are to avoid tragic loss of life and environmental catastrophe. As a responsible nation we must
ensure that our Coastguard is up to scratch. To pinch pennies is to invite disaster.

Late last year, the government made its proposals for reform available. They identified a number of problems with the current organisation. Chiefly, there is concern that the organic development of the Marine & Coastguard Agency’s sites means that work cannot be shared between them in an organised way, leaving some Coordination Centres extremely busy while others are sitting on their hands. This causes problems in cost, as there is some duplication of effort due to the inherent unpredictability of maritime incidents.

The solution proposed is a wholesale reorganisation of the Coastguard’s coordination system. Instead of multiple regional centres (such as the five currently active in Scotland) only three centres would serve the entire UK, with a small number of daytime-only sub-centres providing a level of local support. These large centres would save costs by reducing staff numbers and harmonise the level of work undertaken at different times of the day and year. This would allow improved coverage for staff absence (which can cripple small centres at present) and provide a more consistent environment for training and staff development.

However, this approach has serious problems. The centralisation of the services will lead, by necessity, to a loss of local knowledge about sea conditions, weather patterns and locations. The retention of both Stornoway and Lerwick stations go some way to ensuring that this invaluable knowledge is retained, but further problems could well be forthcoming.

The proposed scrapping of the emergency tugs is another matter of great concern. The prospect of an oil spill on the same order as the 1993 Shetland disaster must remind us that the cost of scaling back our protection at sea could be far greater than the amount we save. While the Scotland Office’s temporary reprieve for the tugs–thanks to the campaign of Highlands & Islands councils & Mps-is very welcome–it is critical that a sustainable solution is found. We can’t leave safety at sea wholly in the hands of the private sector.

We need to take the best of the current system and combine it with the government’s plan. There is much scope for greater efficiency in the Coastguard’s work, particularly in the realm of coordinating efforts between different centres. In some cases there may be scope for scaling back operations at current centres and putting the workload onto a larger, single operation.

However, making vast changes in the hope of saving a relatively small amount of money is a false economy–the Braer oil spill’s costs were estimated at US$83 million, and with the seas busier than ever we must recognise the potential for future disaster on the same or even greater scale. There is real scope for improving the organisation of the Coastguard in the future. The focus, however, must always be on quality of service and safety at sea, rather than the upfront costs of the organisation. Untold amounts of money, not to mention human lives, are saved by the swift and decisive action of the Coastguard. To lose sight of their invaluable role in our nation’s safekeeping would be disastrous.

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