24-hour cover battle ‘is lost’

Government expected to annouce go ahead for plans to privatise search and rescue service

A Whitehall announcement is expected tomorrow (Thursday) confirming that the coalition government has endorsed the decision to privatise search and rescue helicopter services.

The plan, proposed by the previous Labour government, had been under review, but the Gazette understands it was discovered that it would cost too much to unravel the preliminary arrangements made with with the Soteria consortium which were the preferred bidders.

There has been bitter opposition in North Devon to the original plan, which would see RAF Chivenor’s operational hours cut from 24 to 12, which many fear could lead to a loss of life.

The battle to keep 24-hour cover was led by North Devon MP Nick Harvey and Ilfracombe Mayor Cllr Bob Thompson.

But the Gazette understands that tough talking behind the scenes went on to ensure that Chivenor even stayed open under the new plan.

Privatisation of the service at Chivenor was due to take place in 2012, but this could now be rolled back to 2014 or 2015 to allow 24-hour bases in other parts of the country to be equipped with faster aircraft which would be able to provide night-time cover for North Devon.

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Soteria intends to replace the familiar, but ageing Sea King helicopters with the newer and faster Sikorsky S92 through a contract estimated to be worth �6 billion.

It is likely that many members of the current RAF air crew will transfer to the new service, which will be jointly managed by the Ministry of Defence and Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

But campaigners in the South West have said no matter how fast the new helicopters, the reduced hours would not be enough to safely cover the whole region.

The scheme effectively rules out most night flying from Chivenor, leaving coverage for the entire South West, South Wales and even Southern Ireland in the hands of Culdrose in Cornwall and Valley in Wales.

The Gazette has learned, however, that some search and rescue bases on the east coast could be used to provide cover in the South West because it would be within range of the new, faster helicopters.

Mr Harvey told the Gazette it would be very disappointing if Chivenor had lost its 24-hour status after the fight which had been put up to save it.

Ilfracombe Mayor Councillor Bob Thompson led a campaign against any cuts which was launched by Ilfracombe Town Council.

“Any changes to the existing hours at Chivenor would be an enormous disappointment, because our argument would always be the same – that 24 hour cover is essential,” he said. “Any alterations to that could potentially affect lives.”

n Following its spending review, it has also been reported the government is looking at shutting more than half of the UK’s 19 Coastguard stations.

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