This week the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (part of the Department of Transport*) begins a series of public meetings across the UK to discuss government proposals to cut the coastguard service.
The cuts currently being considered are a reduction in the number of stations from 18 to 8, with five of the surviving stations providing a reduced service. Particularly sensitive is the fact that, under the government`s plans as they stand, only three stations will operate a 24 hour service.
Other changes being considered are proposals to `remove` the Agency`s emergency towing vessels and `delete` the offshore fire fighting and chemical spill response service.
Unsurprisingly, these suggestions have met with something akin to anger, particularly in the communities most directly affected ;
`UK Coastguards Unite Against Closure` said the Shetland News (22 Feb 2011 at http://www.shetland-news.co.uk/)
`Coastguards Angry with MCA Director` reported H J Marter of Shetland Marine News (6 Jan 2011 at http://www.shetlandmarine.com/ )
`Now it`s the Coastguard that Need to be Rescued` commented the Western Telegraph (19 Jan 2011 at http://www.westerntelegraph.co.uk/ )
Inevitably, there has been a response from MPs and Councillors ; `MPs Unite in Battle to Save Coastguard` reported News Letter ( 15 Feb 2011 at http://www.newsletter.co.uk/)
The public have not been slow to show their feelings (Campaign to Save Holyhead Coastguard Backed by Public` stated The Bangor and Anglesey Mail`s Elgan Hearn (9 Feb 2011 at http://www.theonlinemail.co.uk/ ).
Local newspapers have also not been slow to join the fray ;
`Save our Station` implored the Milford and West Wales Mercury (17 Feb 2011 at http://www.milfordmercury.co.uk/ ), while the Hexham Express launched a similarly-themed SOS (Save our Station) campaign in respect of Brixham station, quickly attracting cross-party support (details at http://www.thisissouthdevon.co.uk/ ).
Is this the beginning of another Save our Forests ? Well, maybe. "There are very few coastguards that are not calling for change or modernisation", a representative told the Shetland News, but pointed out that "not one has said these are the right plans", a point apparently conceded by MCA Chief Exec Sir Alan Massey.
The point to remember here is that we live in a plural democracy. There are reasons why even elected governments cannot just impose their will on the people without consultation. The most important point may not be what position you take on a particular issue, but that you get the chance to express that view.
Fortunately, opportunities to do so present themselves all too readily in this instance.
Firstly, there are the public meetings mentioned above. I`m pretty sure we don`t make much use of coastguards here in the Midlands, but the meetings will provide important opportunities for the relevant communities to put their concerns.
Secondly, the MCA consultation document appears online for anyone to read and comment - visit http://www.mcga.gov.uk/ to do so.
Additionally the Transport Select Committe is also looking into the issues, and submissions can be sent to them at email@example.com (closing date 26 April 2011).
If you wish to sign one of the many petitions that are being circulated, or familiarise yourself with the case against the cuts, here are some useful links ;
Should you want to know my opinion, I think the cuts go way too far and are badly thought-out and impractical, though some changes may well be necessary. My suspicion is that the government fully intends to reduce the level of cuts (to this particular service) and that the current proposals are purely a starting point for negotiations and to test the level of public reaction. In that context, the phrase `be careful what you wish for` springs to mind !
*For a bit of background reading, you might like to see my posting `Transports of Delight` (this blog, 1 Sep 2010), with partic reference to the section headed trade unions.