Radical changes to the UK's Coastguard are planned by the British Government, and no-one is happy about it. Her Majesty's Coastguard is used by mariners the world over and has saved countless lives at sea. Here Emily Barr, writing for the Guardian, asks 'Why is the government intent on threatening its work?'
Speed of response is the issue - new plan criticised
Last summer, I was walking on the coastal path, when a man ran towards me. 'Has your phone got reception?' he demanded. 'Can you call the coastguard? My friend's down there in a boat, he's hurt his leg, he needs rescuing.' We called the coastguard and explained where we were. A lifeboat crew duly picked up his friend. The crisis was over in no time at all.
The summer season has started again, and all around the UK's coastline, the coastguard are getting busy. Britain has 19,491 miles of coastline at high tide, and every mile of it, as well as many miles beyond, is guarded by people operating upwards of eight different forms of communications equipment, ready to deal with any maritime or coastal emergency – big or small.
The coastguard is an almost invisible service, taken for granted when it is needed and ignored when it is not. Last week, when transport secretary Philip Hammond indicated that the government may be about to perform a U-turn on its proposed huge cuts to the service, it was largely only people in areas that would be affected who even knew what he was talking about.
In December 2010, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) presented the government with proposals that, if accepted, would have changed the coastguard service beyond recognition, closing half of its 18 stations and leaving only three open 24 hours a day. The safety ramifications were enormous, and yet the issue has received a fraction of the national attention the proposed sell-off of the forests did.
I live in Falmouth, Cornwall, home to the coastguard station that, at one extreme, arranged the rescue of the man at the base of the cliff, and, at the other, single-handedly fulfils the UK's international obligation to play its part in policing the oceans. Local feeling has been running high. Truro and Falmouth's Conservative MP, Sarah Newton, recently presented parliament with a petition signed by 7,500 people, or a third of the town's population.
Coastguard - years of service but now under threat
Distress calls from all over the globe are directed to Falmouth. Its 27 staff pick up emergency beacon distress signals, locate the vessel in trouble, and immediately get to work looking for a way to get people out of the water. Its headquarters are, says Newton, the 'real life Thunderbirds base'. And this responsibility is scheduled to be removed under the MCA's proposals.
With the consultation period for written submissions closed, the issue has been passed to the transport select committee. The fact that Hammond has now indicated that there is likely to be a rethink does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that the campaigners are victorious.
For the full story on the issue go to http://www.guardian.co.uk!The_Guardian