Council to hear private contractor’s plans for search and rescue service but minister says the helicopters are still going to Wales in 2015.

NORTH Devon's leaders have vowed to continue the fight after a lukewarm government response to mounting pressure to keep search and rescue helicopters at Chivenor.

Transport minister Stephen Hammond wrote yesterday (Monday) to North Devon Council Leader Brian Greenslade to defend plans to move the service to South Wales from 2015.

But he did agree to representatives from private contractor Bristow Helicopters briefing North Devon Council on its plans for the service.

It follows a meeting between Mr Greenslade, North Devon MP Nick Harvey and the minister in London, as well as a formal letter from the council.

From 2015 the privatised service will be run from St Athan Airport, using two new Augusta Westland AW-192 helicopters which the government says will give an overall faster response time.

Campaigners say Chivenor should have at least one 'forward operating' helicopter for rapid response on this side of the channel.

Responding to claims of a lack of consultation, in his letter Mr Hammond said there had not been enough time, while being unable to award the contract would have left 'an unbridgeable gap' in search and rescue cover.

He said St Athan was 'a commercial decision' taken by Bristow, and Chivenor would need 'substantial repairs and modernisation' to provide ongoing service.

"Any variation to Bristow's solution at this stage would need to be carefully considered and could open us up to legal challenge from other bidders," he wrote.

Mr Greenslade said he was not surprised local concerns had been 'brushed off', but they were not going to give up until they had exhausted every opportunity: "A move forward for North Devon would be to get a helicopter there, in the same way an ambulance might park up to cover a town centre.

"Saving 20 minutes flying time from St Athan in an emergency is pretty critical, I would say."

Deputy council leader, Councillor Rodney Cann said he thought the letter was 'arrogant' and showed 'a complete disregard for the views of local people': "I am dismayed they were putting their procurement procedure before the importance of consultation. They preach localism when it suits them and then totally ignore it when it comes to it," he said.

Mr Harvey added: "We will continue to press both the Department of Transport and Bristow to explain the logic of moving out of Chivenor. Forward basing one helicopter here at busy times would certainly make people more confident."