Great Yarmouth: Coastguard Centre To Close

22 November 2011, 17:19 | Updated: 22 November 2011, 17:55

The government has confirmed the coastguard co-ordination centre at Great Yarmouth will be closing, as well as seven others around the UK.

Co-ordination centres will be closed at Swansea, Portland in Dorset, Clyde and Forth in Scotland, Liverpool, Great Yarmouth, Brixham in Devon, and Walton on the Naze in Essex with a loss of 159 jobs.

However, shipping minister Mike Penning insisted the changes would result in a "modernised, nationally networked, fully resilient'' service.

A new central Maritime Operations Centre (MOC) will be located at Fareham in Hampshire, Mr Penning said in a statement to MPs.

The blueprint confirmed today had watered down the Government's original closure plans, but shadow shipping minister Jim Fitzpatrick said: "I have no doubt these proposals are at least partly driven by financial constraints."

He added: "In a number of communities out there now there will be real disappointment and even anger today."

In July the Government set out its revised plans, which were confirmed today after a consultation process.

Ministers got rid of their original proposals which envisaged cutting the centres from 19 to nine, with three remaining open 24 hours a day.

Instead Mr Penning confirmed a system with a single MOC, which will be based at the vacant fire control centre in Fareham, and round-the-clock co-ordination centres at Falmouth in Cornwall; Milford Haven and Holyhead in Wales; Bangor in Northern Ireland; Shetland, Aberdeen and Stornoway in Scotland; and Humber.

The MOC will have a back-up at the existing coastguard centre in Dover, which will retain its 24-hour co-ordination role, and the small London station will also remain open.

The new MOC will replace the centre at Lee on Solent in Hampshire.

Mr Penning told the Commons: "I understand, of course, that the closure of some existing co-ordination centres and the loss of some coastguard jobs will come as a disappointment to those directly affected.

However, the decisions I have announced today will deliver the modernised, nationally networked, fully resilient coastguard service we require for the future while reducing costs."

The move would give "better support for our coastguard volunteers" and "front-line rescue capabilities".

The axed co-ordination centres will be closed by the end of March 2015.

MPs lined up to seek reassurance that local knowledge on waters near their constituencies would not be lost when the paired stations are closed.

Conservative Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) said: "Can you reassure me that where one of a pair of co-ordination centres are closing, there will be structure in place to ensure local knowledge is transferred between staff and we don't have a sudden 'cliff edge' changeover?''

Mr Penning said: "Local knowledge of the topography is there today. I was at Swansea while they actually closed it while I was there for the meeting with the staff and Milford Haven took it over. It will just mean more resilience within the system.''

Former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) said: "Would you accept that there is a considerable element of gamble involved in all of this, given the warning from seafarers and emergency services who have been doing this job successfully for generations? Would you at least confirm that if the circumstances merit it, you would be willing to reopen this and go back to drawing board?''

Mr Penning said: "The reason we have brought this forward is because the original proposals were poor - but they weren't my proposals, they were the previous government's proposals.

And the whole point about having a resilience system, which doesn't actually happen today, is that we will not have the scaremongering that goes on today about the safety. The resilience will be there from now onwards and actually in most coastguard stations I went to - including in Scotland - they actually said we know we have to cut the stations, we know we have to go down to nine or 10. That was said to me around the country as I made my visits.''

The chairwoman of the Transport Select Committee, Louise Ellman, said: "I recognise the significant changes that have been made since the Government's original proposals were put forward. But what work has actually been done to ensure that this scale of closures will retain local knowledge so that life can be safeguarded?''

Mr Penning replied: "Your report did help in drawing views together about how the coastguard can go forward.

The whole point of keeping one of the pairs, which on a regular basis cover the topography of the other areas, means that we keep the local knowledge so many people in the consultation were concerned about.

I know it's disappointing for some areas in the country but actually resilience is more important and we need to have a 21st century coastguard.''

Suffolk and Norfolk MEP Richard Howitt, who has helped lead the campaign against the closures, says he is now writing to the European Commission calling on them to review whether the decision could breach EU rules on maritime safety and coastal protection.

He had helped organise the 9,000-strong "Coastguard SOS" petition against the closures and says it is wrong to leave no coastguard presence anywhere on the East Anglian coastline.

He said:

"This really is a disaster waiting to happen and I am sad to say it will be loss of life life on the scale of the Marchioness disaster or Gulf-of-Mexico level of pollution on our coastline which will get a future Government to reverse today's cuts.

Thousands of representations, answers to the hard questions and all of the arguments were won by the campaigners, so it is the Government which is losing today by breaking its own promise of consultation in good faith.

If my family goes on a pleasure boat ride or my children go swimming in the sea, I don't want the fear that any emergency would be dealt with from Humberside or Southampton, but that fear is today made real.

We are all the losers."