Search and rescue move: Mixed reaction in Devon and Cornwall

Coastguard helicopter. Pic: MCA
Image caption The Bristow Group will replace ageing RAF and Royal Navy Sea King helicopters with a modern fleet

The privatisation of the UK's helicopter search and rescue (SAR) operation has been met with a mixed response around two of its current bases.

The US-based Bristow Group has won a 10-year, £1.6bn contract to run the service from 2015 - ending 70 years of RAF and Royal Naval operations.

For the South West of England, it means operations at Royal Marine Barracks (RMB) Chivenor will relocate to St Athan in Wales, and work at Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Culdrose in Cornwall will move to Newquay Airport.

'Ever-scarcer resources'

Bob Thompson, an Ilfracombe councillor who campaigned to keep 24-hour cover at Chivenor, said: "Losing Chivenor will be losing a major part of the fabric of our society in north Devon.

"We are so used to seeing the big yellow bird flying around the area, that it will be missed, but in terms of saving lives then perhaps helicopters being based in Wales will be better."

While the search and rescue element of Chivenor will go, the base and the rest of its operations will remain.

Nick Harvey, MP for north Devon and former defence minister, said: "I am very sorry to see the Search And Rescue personnel and their families leave.

"I am also sad to see the RAF and the Navy pulling out of this area of work, but I do understand their concern that it was using up their ever-scarcer resources.

"But with 24-hour services operating out of Cardiff and Newquay, I think we must accept that North Devon will be very much safer than the original proposal under the last government to downgrade us to daytime-only cover."

In Cornwall, search and rescue will move 34 miles (55km) down the road from RNAS Culdrose to Newquay Airport where the Cornwall Air Ambulance is already based.

Major Dave Fielder, from RNAS Culdrose, said: "This announcement wasn't a surprise, purely because we knew the Sea King was being withdrawn in 2016 and staff and personnel will be transferred to other roles.

"So it's business as usual but with subtle changes."

Airport managing director Al Titterington hailed the Department of Transport announcement on Tuesday as "very good news for the airport".

"The most important bit is we demonstrate the importance not just to connecting Cornwall for business and leisure, but we're now going to be part of national infrastructure," he said.

Andrew George, MP for West Cornwall, has his concerns and says the move has drawbacks for the forces. Royal Naval staff, he says, will be missing out on the "real life training experience" of operations now the service will be run privately.

But Captain Peter Morgan who has experienced both sides of the divide, having worked at RNAS Culdrose and Bristows, says the move is a "good thing".

"Bristows is a fine helicopter company, no one's better equipped to handle SAR work," he added.

"It's sad perhaps that the SAR outfit is going to move away from Culdrose and be based at Newquay, but sadness doesn't alter the fact that the service to the marine people, that need rescuing, is going to be just as well served."

Under the new contract, 22 helicopters will operate 24-hours a day from 10 locations around the UK which the government says "will be able reach a larger area of the UK search and rescue region within one hour".

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