Will the ‘Big Society’ have to cover for Scottish coastguard cuts?

The UK government is putting too much emphasis on the use of volunteers and is expecting too much of them to provide a vital service requiring 24-hour manning, a service now facing such serious cuts.

The Scottish Government has announced it is consulting key stakeholders over whether control over coastguard services should be devolved to Holyrood. The disclosure comes following a consultation launched in December by the UK Department for Transport which proposed cutting the number of coastguard stations in Scotland from five down to two – with just one, in Aberdeen, open 24 hours and either Shetland or Stornoway being open during daylight hours only.

Last month, MSPs called on the UK government to re-consider its proposals, raising concerns over safety. During the same debate the Scottish Government expressed shock at having not be consulted prior to the publication of the proposals by the Department for Transport and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).

It has now emerged that Scottish rural affairs secretary Richard Lockhead has written to 40 organisations to seek their views on the future of the coastguard service in Scotland, and how it should be configured in the future. Among the questions being raised is whether control of the service should be devolved to the Scottish government.

Mr Lockhead said:

“If these unjustifiable measures are implemented, maritime safety in Scotland will surely be compromised.

Scotland holds 60% of the UK’s coastline but these proposals would leave us with just a quarter of the co-ordination centres. This dangerous proposal is playing fast and loose with lives and safety.

“With ever increasing activity on Scotland’s seas and around our coastline, the MCA’s proposals raise serious doubts about the UK government’s ability to manage the coastguard service.

“As the Scottish government prepares a formal response to the consultation, we need to make sure that maritime safety – not financial savings – is at the heart of deciding the future of these vital services.”

In response to the announcement, whilst opposing the measures being announced by the UK government, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats criticised the Scottish National Party administration for turning an issue of safety into one of constitutional authority.

For Labour, leader Iain Gray explained:

“The only thing more ill-thought out than the Tory plan to close coastguard stations is the SNP plan to break up the whole coastguard service.”

Meanwhile, Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott meanwhile concluded:

“This is not the time for a constitutional debate. We need all parties to stand behind Scotland’s coastguard stations and ensure the UK government retain this vital service. That is the point that the Scottish government should be supporting.”

Responding to the developments, a spokesman for the Department for Transport commented:

“Our proposals – which are subject to full public consultation – are in response to a long-overdue need to modernise the coastguard, providing a fully-integrated national network of control centres, actually increasing resilience.

“In turn, this will enable us to provide staff with greater responsibility, a recognised career structure and salaries to match. The locally-based volunteer rescue teams are unaffected by our proposals, indeed we are actually improving the support they receive through better management and training.”

By emphasising the role of volunteer rescue teams, however good they may be, the fear will be that the UK government is putting too much emphasis on the use of volunteers and is expecting too much of them to provide a vital service requiring 24-hour manning, a service now facing such serious cuts. Is this the big society?

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