Great Yarmouth coastguard base closure defended

SWIMMERS, sailors and those based offshore will be in better, not worse, hands as a result of cuts that look likely to close Great Yarmouth’s coastguard HQ, an audience heard at a meeting over the plans.

Proposals seeking to reduce the number of such co-ordination centres from 18 to eight nationally look set to end the efforts of the 36 staff who work at Havenbridge House on North Quay providing search and rescue coverage for the region.

And at a sparsely-attended consultation at the Town Hall on Wednesday night, an often sceptical audience of fewer than 20 people quizzed those responsible – the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).

MCA regional director for the east of England Tom Elder gave a presentation on the plans, which will end the current practice of coastguard co-ordination centres along a shared coastline pairing up to help only one another.

Instead, any of the centres remaining could intervene to help one another if the demand was required.

Mr Elder said that similarly staffed-centres often had very different levels of demand and said: “We can deal with events better as we can share [the service] better throughout the country. It makes better use of our people and better use of our technology.”

The remaining centres would include six sub centres open during the day (Dover, Falmouth, Swansea, Liverpool or Belfast, Stornaway or Shetland, and Humber) and two, based in Aberdeen and Southampton or Portsmouth which would operate on a continual basis.

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Those present also heard the geographic and cost justifications for the Yarmouth centre being closed.

This included the fact that the planned new stations had been spread to “provide resilience” so two would not be affected by the same occasion of coastal flooding, and the fact that the site lease renewal is due in 2013 while other stations had longer to go and so “would cost an arm and a leg to get out of”.

However a number of the audience were cynical that the changes, which would reduce overall national staffing levels from 491 to 248 over four years, could lead to an improved service.

There were also fears that an expected increase in shipping traffic off the east coast had not been taken into account, and that the loss of a Yarmouth-based centre would leave a dangerous gap in local knowledge which could not be compensated by technology.

Mike Randall, a director at Caister Lifeboat, attacked the lack of publicity for Wednesday’s event, which had attracted more than 200 people in a similar meeting the previous night in Essex, and said: “I’m probably one of the few people who have looked through the proposals document and I’ve found it to be like a glossy magazine.

“To be frank I wouldn’t disagree with the use of technology but many of us are very concerned about the local knowledge aspect.”

The consultation is set to continue until March 24, at which point the plan will go for government approval.

It continues in the wake of calls by union officials this week to halt the proposals, following news of a full enquiry into the issue by the House of Commons transport select committee.

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