Retaining Northern Ireland’s only Coastguard station along with 10 others under threat is the “absolute minimum” that must remain to keep the UK’s shores safe, union leaders warned last night.
A powerful Parliamentary committee investigating the planned cutbacks, which include moves to slash the capability to tackle ship fires and chemical incidents as well as scrapping the provision of emergency tugs, was told it “threatens to have grave consequences for safety in UK waters”.
The fears were raised at the Commons Transport committee, which is investigating the Government’s plans to axe 10 Coastguard stations and reduce a further five to daylight-only operations. Just three would be left to operate round the clock.
Either Bangor or Liverpool station will be closed under the plans, and the remaining base will operate on the reduced hours system.
Senior national secretary Allen Graveson, from mariners’ union Nautilus International, told MPs there should be an “absolute minimum” of 11 stations across the UK, seven fewer than currently in operation.
The union is calling for a halt to the consultation until it could be shown the “untested” proposals would not endanger public safety.
It comes as Labour branded the reforms “ill-thought-out madness” which would make the coast more dangerous.
The number of Coastguard staff is also set to be slashed by more than a third from nearly 600, leading to fears that a loss of local knowledge could hamper rescue operations.
In the face of a public outcry, the Government extended the consultation on the proposals until next Thursday, May 5.
Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle said: “The Tory-led Government's proposal to close so many of our coastguard stations is ill-thought out madness that will leave our coastline a more dangerous place.
“To close more than half of the UK's coastguard stations in one go, leaving just three offering 24-hour cover, is a cut too far.”
The Government argues that the current coastguard set-up dates back 40 years and needs to be revamped to meet 21st century challenges.
The coalition also says maintaining the current system is unaffordable.
But the Prime Minister David Cameron recently vowed to rethink the plans if they threatened safety at sea.
The Government only wanted to make the changes to the maritime rescue service if it led to frontline improvements he said.
Story so far
Northern Ireland’s only Coastguard station, based in Bangor, Co Down, is under threat of closure. A proposed overhaul of the UK’s sea rescue bases will see 10 out of 18 stations closed by the end of the year. Just three bases — in Aberdeen, Dover and Portsmouth — will stay open full-time, with another five operating during daylight hours. Belfast’s centre is in direct competition with Liverpool to be one of the daylight-only substations. The public consultation on the proposals will close on May 5.