The RYA says its main worry is Coastguard operations' ‘weakness and lack of resilience’

A report in The Times last week story quoted a source saying that the government is preparing to do a U-turn on Coastguard station closures. But it is also to weigh up recommendation from bodies including the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) that are arguing for an modernisation of the service.

One of the RYA’s main concerns is that Coastguard systems at present lack the necessary ‘reslience’ and have not kept pace with modern technology.

The proposal last year to reduce Coastguard stations round the UK from 18 to eight and to centralise some of the command and control structure have met with stiff public opposition.

Stations threatened with closure include Holyhead, Milford Haven, Brixham, Portland, Yarmouth and Inverness, while other such as Falmouth could potentially go down to daylight hours operation.

As part of a long-running consultation exercise on the draft plans, a Commons Select Committee has been listening to objections. Last week it was taking evidence in Falmouth and Stornoway and is due to put its recommendations to the government within the next month.

The RYA gave its evidence and views last week. On behalf of sailors, it says its main concern is that the Coastguard’s operations need to be updated.

“There is a pressing need for modernisation of the command and control facility to remove weakness, and we believe there is a lack of resilience in the system, but how they do that we’re not qualified to say. We don’t have a view on how many stations there should be,” says the RYA’s cruising manager, Stuart Carruthers.

As an example, Carruthers points out that the current system pairs each Coastguard station with one other, but no other sectors are able to share the workload. So, for example: “Falmouth can handle incidents on the other side of the world but if they are overloaded they have to pass their regular sector to Brixham – it can’t be passed to any other station.”

“The situation has arisen from the way the Coastguard was historically operated,” he adds. “But we are now in an electronic environment and used to better systems in the way most of us work.”

But the RYA has voiced fears about the implementation of centralising services, pointing to problems encountered with the fire and ambulance services.

It is expected that the Commons Select Committee’s recommendations will differ from the original proposals, but some if not all of the closures originally suggested are still a possibility. Shipping minister Mike Penning has made it quite clear from the outset that cost-cutting is an essential aspect of the plan, and without some staff cuts, closures or centralisation it’s hard to see how that could be achieved.

Public objections have centred on the loss of local knowledge if regional Coastguard stations are to close. Proponents, however, point to the ability of stations such as Falmouth MRCC successfully to co-ordinate rescues well outside their patch of the world at no disadvantage. They say it is local rescue services that provide the necessary detailed local knowledge.

Another serious objection concerns the possibility of Coastguard staff reductions. The Coastguard has been carrying out reduced service as part of industrial action for over a year, and a carrot-and-stick style solution is on offer: staff cuts, but talk of an improvement to pay scales and qualification levels.

At present the lowest grade of watchkeeping assistant is paid just £16,000-£18,000 a year and no special competence or marine experience is required prior to training.

The government is to consider proposals put forward by the Select Committee and make a decision about changes in late June.