Coastguard stations saved

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Ministers are to scale back controversial plans to close more than half of the coastguard stations around Britain, it was disclosed today.

The proposal to cut the number of local rescue stations from 19 to nine, only four of which would have remained open 24 hours a day, sparked anger in coastal communities and opposition among some Conservative MPs.

It is understood that Transport Secretary Philip Hammond will now reprieve some of the threatened stations. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency will get one high-tech new national centre to replace the abandoned stations, rather than the two which had been planned.

Almost half of the service's full-time staff had been slated to lose their jobs under the original plans, but the impact on staffing numbers of Mr Hammond's climbdown is not yet known.

A Whitehall source said that the Transport Secretary was responding to arguments he has heard during an ongoing consultation process, including warnings that the skills of experienced coastguards would be lost if local centres were closed.

"I can't speculate on the numbers of stations which will be in the final proposals," said the source. "There will be a reduction, but it won't be as large as originally envisaged."

He added: "These proposals were first drawn up by Labour and were intended to address a lack of resilience in the system. If there is a major crisis, a small centre can be swamped by it. That is why we wanted to create big national centres."

Following reports of Mr Hammond's change of heart in today's press, a Department for Transport spokesman said: "We will not comment on speculation about the outcome of our consultation.

"Our proposals are in response to a long-overdue need to bring the way Coastguard rescues are co-ordinated into the 21st century, making this vital rescue service stronger, more resilient and improving its services at the front line.

"This need will not simply go away, but this is a genuine consultation exercise and the Government is committed to taking all points of view into account before deciding how best to proceed."

Public and Commercial Services union general secretary Mark Serwotka said the "climbdown" was evidence of what can be achieved by community campaigning.

"This is a body blow for the Government, which is reeling from the force of public outrage at ill-thought-out plans to slash the life-saving support that coastguards provide.

"It is not yet clear what any new proposals will include and there are still battles to be won to maintain vital local services that our members provide 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We would expect new plans to be subject to proper consultation and negotiation."

Commons Leader Sir George Young told MPs the Government was "having another look" at the proposals and would respond before the Commons rises in July.

Responding to questions in the Commons he said: "The review of the service is something that was started under the previous administration.

"The Government is understandably reluctant to comment on the speculation that has been in the press.

"We will be responding (to the review) in due course. We will be having another look at the reorganisation proposals and we will reveal our conclusions to the House before the summer recess."

Shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle called on Mr Hammond to "clear up the uncertainty" facing UK coastguard stations.

Ms Eagle said: "Britain's coastguards deserve better than this further uncertainty.

"Instead of putting on hold their reckless plans to axe local coastguard stations, the Tory-led Government should abandon their plans.

"To close more than half of the UK's coastguard stations in one go, leaving just three offering 24-hour cover, will leave our coastline a more dangerous place."

Conservative MP for South East Cornwall Sheryll Murray, whose trawlerman husband died at sea earlier this year, called on Mr Hammond to scrap the current consultation and talk instead to coastguards about modernising the equipment they use.

Mrs Murray told the BBC: "I hope that the minister will make sure that we keep our coastguard stations open - every one of them - on a 24/7 basis.

"We are in the lead with our rescue service and we have to make sure that continues."

She warned that minor incidents would be "swallowed up" by a central national centre, and that relatives of people lost at sea needed to be able to contact coastguards with the detailed knowledge of their area that could only be provided by local stations.

"Let's face it, if you have received the news that your husband's boat is missing, the last thing you want is to be passed from one person to another," said Mrs Murray.

"You need that personal contact that you get from local stations.

"The experience of being able to speak to a local person who was completely familiar with the situation I was in was very comforting. I don't think I would have received the same sort of communication had we had just one central station covering the whole country."