The UK Government will be leaving the Highlands and Islands exposed to catastrophic environmental damage and the possible loss of life if it does not reverse its decision to withdraw the two emergency towing vessels which police the area from the Western Isles to Shetland.
In an 11th hour plea to Shipping Minister Mike Penning and Secretary of State for Transport, Philip Hammond, council leaders have highlighted the devastating impact on the area of the loss of the tugs from the end of this month.
Councils and partner agencies have repeatedly warned the UK’s Department for Transport of the consequences of having no protection should a vessel get into difficulty around the shores of the Highlands and Islands.
They have conducted an Independent Risk Assessment and key agencies, such as the Scottish Ambulance Service, the Highland and Islands Fire and Rescue Service, Northern Constabulary, Scottish Natural Heritage and SEPA all agree the absence of the tugs poses a higher risk of environmental and economic damage and loss of life resulting from an incident at sea.
In a constructive attempt to retain the tugs, the Councils, as members of a specially constituted ‘ETV Task Group’ identified a number of potential alternative sources of funding for the Department for Transport to explore. These included contributions from the Crown Estate, Ministry of Defence, General Lighthouse Board, commercial activities, increasing salvage income, and increased use of the ETVs by other agencies.
The Task Group has made clear from the beginning that it is unrealistic to expect local authorities to take the lead, as they do not have the responsibility to do so, nor sufficient influence to head up negotiations between UK Government Departments. The proposals for an alternative funding model were therefore presented to the Minister for Shipping to take forward as the Department for Transport is responsible for marine safety under the Scotland Act.
The Highland Council Leader Michael Foxley said: “We have done everything we can to impress upon the UK Government how important this issue is and to present realistic options for Ministers to explore. I genuinely believe there is nothing more that we can do and it is now up to the UK Government to come up with a credible way forward. "
Cllr Foxley has written to the Shipping Minister, Mike Penning MP, stating: “The decision to withdraw the ETVs in the North of Scotland, without any alternative provision, places both shipping and coastal communities at significant increased risk. In the event of a shipping incident, the consequences for life could be fatal and for the coastal environment devastating.”
Councillor Stephen Hagan, Convener of Orkney Islands Council, said: “The withdrawal of the tugs poses an unacceptable level of risk to lives and to the taxpayer’s pocket in terms of the cost of any environmental disaster, where delays in response result in an exponential cost of recovery. The proposal not to renew current provision by the end of next week is just unacceptable.”
Shetland Islands Council Convener, Councillor Sandy Cluness said: “The UK coalition Government needs to realise that we are in a very vulnerable position with all the shipping using the seaways around Shetland. We continue to call on them to extend the existing contract until a safe alternative can be found - the protection of these islands are its responsibility. Any savings that are made out of these proposals to remove the ETVs would pale into insignificance if an incident was to happen and we couldn’t respond properly. Another Braer-type incident could cost the Shetland seafood industry as much as £500 million. Most ministers won’t be aware of the impact a tanker grounding can have, but unfortunately, as Shetlanders, we have firsthand experience.”