Strong reactions over plans to axe Chivenor rescue helicopters


- Credit: Archant

Poll: North Devon begins to protest as government plans for privatising search and rescue services are made known.

Some of the protesters gathered at the Square in Barnstaple this afternoon in opposition to the gove

Some of the protesters gathered at the Square in Barnstaple this afternoon in opposition to the government's plans for withdrawing the helicopters from Chivenor. - Credit: Archant

OPPOSITION is already growing in North Devon after the plans were revealed today (Tuesday) to withdraw search and rescue helicopter services from Chivenor.


- Credit: Archant

Around 30 people gathered at the Square in Barnstaple this afternoon in response to a Facebook appeal launched this morning by district councillor Frank Biederman, called SOS – Save Our Chivenor Helicopters.

He said he believed the plan to remove Chivenor’s SAR capability was not good news for North Devon and would result in poorer cover for people in this area.

“I know they’re not going to change their mind, but we do seem to be picked on in North Devon and this is just another nail in our coffin,” he said.

The Department for Transport said a £1.6 billion contact to run the entire UK rescue service had been awarded to American firm Bristow Helicopters Limited, ending more than 70 years of cover by the RAF and Royal Navy.

The news has brought a mixed response from people in the region today, with several expressing sadness at the loss of local crews but saying they felt rescue cover would be adequately provided.

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‘Think again’

But North Devon Council Leader Brian Greenslade and deputy leader Rodney Cann have also issued a joint statement calling on the government to think again.

They argue the remoteness of North Devon, with its tourist beaches, secluded moorland areas, fishing industry and proposed Atlantic Array wind farm development make it a special case.

Chivenor’s crew would be moved to a new base at St Athan in South Wales, manning two of the 10 new Sikorsky S92 helicopters that would form half of the new service fleet, operating from 10 UK locations together with a further 10 AgustaWestland AW189 aircraft.

The government says the new service would improve flying times and offer better coverage of high-risk areas with 22 state-of-the-art helicopters operating 24-hour cover, with 85 per cent of high risk areas within a 30 minute range.

In their statement, Councillors Greenslade and Cann said: “We accept it is inevitable that the government will go-ahead and privatise the service regardless, but we believe there is a sound case for a compromise solution.

“We believe savings could be achieved by retaining the presence of one helicopter at Chivenor and relocating the maintenance and servicing at ether Swansea or Newquay.”


But North Devon MP Nick Harvey said he would be very sorry to see the Chivenor personnel and their families leave, as they had ‘been part and parcel of the North Devon community and landscape for so long’.

“I am sad to see the RAF and the Navy pulling out of this area of work, but I do understand their concern that it was using up their ever-scarcer resources,” he said.

“But with 24-hour services operating out of Cardiff and Newquay, I think we must accept North Devon will be very much safer than the original proposal under the last government to downgrade us to daytime-only cover.”

‘A great deal of regret’

Bob Thompson, who led Ilfracombe Town Council’s campaign four years ago to oppose plans to reduce Chivenor’s cover from 24 to 13 hours, in tandem with his daughter Judith’s Facebook campaign agreed there would be ‘a great deal of regret’, but added:

“We believe people have listened to arguments we made for keeping it 24 hours and the new base St Athan is only just across the channel, so in search and rescue terms we have almost all that we wished for.”

Job losses?

The Gazette spoke to Richard Rendle, who is a member of around 20 civilian Defence Fire & Rescue Service personnel that serves 22 Squadron at Chivenor.

“We could either be transferred to other stations or it is a case of being made redundant and it sounds like we are out of a job,” he said.

“It’s been on the cards for quite awhile, we knew it was going to go civilian at some point.”

A national online petition on the government’s website called ‘Keep search-and-rescue (SAR) run by the military’ set up by a Henry Williams already has more than 2,100 signatures.

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