New Government plans for new civilian search and rescue service guarantees Chivenor will retain 24 hour.

AROUND the clock helicopter search and rescue cover at Chivenor looks to have been saved for the long term, following a surprise announcement on Monday.

The Government has said the North Devon service is one of 10 bases that will operate 24 hour cover provided by civilian crews from 2016.

It is expected to prompt a jubilant reaction from campaigners across the South West and Wales, who feared lives would be lost on land and at sea under the previous government’s plans to cut Chivenor’s operational hours in half.

Secretary of State for Transport Justine Greening told Parliament in a written statement the Coalition Government had started the procurement process for a new UK-wide search and rescue helicopter service, for a period of approximately 10 years.

She said this would enable the armed forces to focus activity on its frontline operations.

“The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force crews have shown great dedication and professionalism in delivering an exemplary search and rescue service for many years, and we owe them all great thanks for this,” she added.

Bidders are being invited to submit options which would use a mixed fleet of modern helicopters, based on the capabilities required at each bases.

It is hoped to award the contract in 2013, in preparation for the civilian contactor to take over by 2016 when the Ministry of Defence withdraws its aging Sea King fleet of helicopters from service.

In February this year the previous government’s plans and its preferred bidder the Soteria consortium were shelved after it emerged there were “possible issues” in the tender process.

There would be casualties under the new plans, with RAF Bulmer in Northumberland and MCA Portland in Dorset scheduled to close by 2015.

Last year North Devon MP and Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey was joined by Bob Thompson — who led the Ilfracombe Town Council campaign — and daughter Judith to present an 18,000 signature petition at 10 Downing Street protesting against the plans for the service.

Mr Harvey told the Gazette on Monday he believed the new footprint of 10 stations would finally see the shape of search and rescue services “settled for the long term.”

“This lifesaving service is of enormous importance, which is all the more relevant given the recent rescue operation for survivors of the sunken cargo vessel in the Irish Sea.

“Chivenor handles more call-outs than either Culdrose or Anglesey. Local residents have always understood just how important Chivenor is and that’s why thousands fought such a long campaign to save it - and I am immensely proud I could help.

“I think that with a helicopter of greater speed and range, the lack of Portland will be mitigated and it should represent an enhanced level of cover because of those additional capabilities.”

In Ilfracombe, a delighted Bob Thompson said it was “absolutely brilliant news.”

“I think it justifies everything we have said. It completely justifies our campaign and I would like to thank Nick Harvey for his support,” he added.

“We are extremely grateful to all those throughout the West Country and in South Wales who have supported us and I believe North Devon has got the result it deserves.”