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UK coastguard station closure plans 'scaled back'

19 May 11 14:47
Coastguard helicopter. Pic: MCA

The government is to drop some planned closures of coastguard stations around the UK, the BBC understands.

It is expected to press ahead with shutting some, but it is not yet known which will be reprieved.

Ministers have extended a consultation on the plans, to allow the Commons transport committee time to complete its assessment of the proposals.

The plans are to have one or two large coastguard centres and fewer smaller stations around the country.

Earlier, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond told the BBC after newspaper reports had said the government was making a U-turn on the proposals that he was re-examining plans to cut the number of coastguard stations from 19 to nine.

"We are looking again at the best configuration that will allow us to deliver those technological improvements, those working-practice improvements, and we will announce our conclusions to Parliament before the summer recess," he said.

"It's not about a U-turn, it's about deciding how best to implement what will be a very a big change in how the coastguard operates."

Under the plans the government has been consulting on, the coastguard service would have two nationally networked maritime operations centres, in Aberdeen and the Portsmouth-Southampton area.

There would be five sub-centres, operating in daylight hours only, in Falmouth, Humber, Swansea, either Belfast or Liverpool and either Stornoway or Shetland.

In addition, there would be one sub-centre operating 24 hours a day in Dover, and the small centre at London would remain unchanged.

Mr Hammond's comments came as MPs from the Commons transport committee were in Stornoway, in the Outer Hebrides, to take evidence on proposals to reduce Scotland's five coastguard stations to the one nationally networked maritime operations centre in Aberdeen.

South East Cornwall MP Sheryll Murray, who lost her husband, Neil, at sea, has campaigned against coastguard closures.

'Best in the world'

She told the BBC: "I fully understand that it doesn't matter whether we have the existing coastguard service or not. It wouldn't have saved Neil.

"But the experience of being able to speak to a local person, who was completely familiar with the situation that I was in, was very comforting, and I don't think that I would have received the same sort of communication if we had had one central coastguard service.

"These men are absolutely brilliant and we have to make sure they have the equipment to ensure that they can continue to provide the best service in the world.

"I hope that the minister will make sure that we keep our coastguard stations open and that's every one of them on a 24/7 basis."

Public and Commercial Services union general secretary Mark Serwotka said the "climbdown" was evidence of what could be achieved by community campaigning.

He said: "This is a body blow for the government, which is reeling from the force of public outrage at ill-thought-out plans to slash the life-saving support that coastguards provide.

"It is not yet clear what any new proposals will include and there are still battles to be won to maintain vital local services that our members provide 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We would expect new plans to be subject to proper consultation and negotiation."

Commons Leader Sir George Young told MPs the government was "having another look" at the proposals and would respond before the Commons rose in July.

'Reckless proposals'

Responding to questions in the Commons he said: "The review of the service is something that was started under the previous administration.

"The government is understandably reluctant to comment on the speculation that has been in the press.

"We will be responding [to the review] in due course. We will be having another look at the reorganisation proposals and we will reveal our conclusions to the House before the summer recess."

Shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle said Labour understood the Department for Transport had "only put on hold" the plans to close the coastguard stations.

In a question to Mr Hammond in the Commons, she said: "These were plans that were never agreed by ministers in the last government and I would not have approved them.

"Will you now take this opportunity to end the uncertainty facing coastguard stations and agree to abandon these reckless proposals?"

Mr Hammond declined to answer the question.

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