Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6 Nov 2002 : Column 133WH—continued

Portland Search and Rescue Helicopter

1.30 pm

Jim Knight (South Dorset): I am grateful to be granted this debate on the future of the Portland search and rescue helicopter. The threatened transfer of that service to Lee-on-the-Solent represents a threat to the Dorset economy and marine safety in south-west England and, most importantly, would lead to a needless loss of life.

I am grateful to the Minister and officials of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency for meeting me on many occasions in the past six months to discuss my concerns about the proposals. Equally, I am grateful to my fellow hon. Members, some of whom are present, for their support in the campaign. I know that the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) would have liked to be here, but were unable to. Thanks must principally go to the many members of the public—including the 25,000 who have petitioned me on the subject—who have given so much momentum to the campaign.

Last night, I visited the website of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The first thing to greet me was the inevitable vision statement. It reads:

None of us could argue with that, but moving the service from Portland to Lee-on-the-Solent is totally contrary to that vision.

The current uncertainty has come about because of the need to replace the existing hangar at Portland. The hangar is located at Osprey quay, which is being redeveloped by the South West of England regional development agency following its sale by the Ministry of Defence. Although the coastguard hangar needs replacement, the requirement has been brought forward because of the RDA's need to redevelop the site. When that first emerged a few years ago, there was agreement in principle between the RDA and the MCA, but negotiations subsequently broke down over the flood risk to the site.

At that time, the MCA looked for alternative sites from which to operate the service, and judged that it would be viable and cheaper to operate from the existing hangar at Lee-on-the-Solent, which, incidentally, is old and in need of replacement. Retaining the service at Portland is now regarded as an extra cost. The issue is less about running costs than about the cost of building the hangar. That, as I understand it, remains the key outstanding issue.

The search and rescue helicopter Whisky Bravo covers the coast from Poole harbour to Start Point. West of Start Point, cover from Culdrose and Chivenor is provided by the Ministry of Defence. Whisky Bravo operates 12 hours a day, and is the biggest civilianised search and rescue helicopter in Britain. At the beginning of this week, it had responded to 177 incidents this year, as opposed to 165 at Lee-on-the-Solent, 112 at Stornoway and 75 at Sumburgh. All are operating at half the hours of Portland, and yet none are busier. That makes the idea of removing the service from that section of the coast somewhat bizarre. Would not the logical development be to increase the service at Portland to 24 hours and make savings elsewhere?

6 Nov 2002 : Column 134WH

The idea of 24-hour working has been proposed to the MCA and has been shown to be possible. I know that the MCA response would be that it is not considering removing the service, but simply relocating it to Lee-on-the-Solent, 51 nautical miles away, and that it is possible to operate the service from there and still meet the national guidelines for response times. However, I question that, and I shall explain why.

Let me first deal with the substantive point. The MCA would be moving an emergency service away from its busiest area. The estimated flying time between Lee-on-the-Solent and Portland is 28 minutes. At a time when ambulances are trying to reduce their response times, the MCA is considering increasing its response time by 28 minutes. That would be a cut in the quality of the service and would go against the MCA's vision of preventing loss of life.

I shall read from a letter from Dr Karim, who is the senior house surgeon in the accident and emergency department of Dorset county hospital. He comments on a patient who, in May this year, was in the water at Durdle Door for approximately 15 minutes before being rescued. The response time of the Portland search and rescue helicopter was just three minutes, and the rescue and the delivery to Dorchester took just another five minutes. Dr Karim says:

my patient

That patient was very lucky—only a further five minutes, not a further 28 minutes, and he would have died. If Portland had been closed, that patient would have died, and he would not have been the only one this year. Whisky Bravo's crews have rescued several people this summer who would have died had the response time been significantly longer.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important Adjournment debate. He will know that Torbay is one of the country's main maritime playgrounds. Moving the helicopter will increase rescue times in the summer when—as we joke—the Birmingham navy comes to play. That is a joke, but there is a serious point. Inexperienced people can get into difficulties at sea and minutes can save lives. We are right behind the hon. Gentleman.

Jim Knight : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. He makes a good point, and I shall mention Torbay a little later on.

The crews of Whisky Bravo are to receive a bravery award at 10 Downing street later this month. I cannot understand how the MCA can even consider relocating this service in the knowledge that doing so will cost lives. I have said that the relocation fulfils national guidelines, which require a helicopter to reach an incident in a high-risk area within one hour; but I shall explain what would happen if there were an incident immediately off Portland. The contractor would have to be airborne within 15 minutes and flying time to the incident would be about 28 minutes, depending on wind speed and direction. On a good day, the response time would therefore be 43 minutes. That is fine, and within the

6 Nov 2002 : Column 135WH

guidelines. If, however, the incident were off Torbay, another 25 minutes would be added and the test would be failed. A helicopter would have to be sent from Culdrose. That helicopter could get to the incident in 15 minutes, but it would leave the busy Cornish coast with no cover.

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): I, too, would like to congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Will he join me in congratulating the personnel at Culdrose on their incredible work? Does he agree that, if the relocation goes ahead, it could have a serious impact on the lives of the mariners on the west coast of Cornwall whom I represent?

Jim Knight : I agree. The reduction in service would have knock-on effects around the coast. That reduction would have to be compensated for, which would mean an increased work load for Culdrose. Anyone who represents a constituency in the south-west peninsula ought to be concerned about those effects.

Between Torbay and Portland is Lyme Bay, which is in a grey area. It would be a struggle to get there in time, especially when the weather was bad—which, of course, is just when rescue services are likely to be needed. A further problem would be the need to refuel between incidents, which entails returning to base or, if pushed, to an airport such as Bournemouth or Exeter. Hon. Members will understand that, on a busy day, Whisky Bravo would really struggle to fulfil its minimum requirements.

I imagine that the MCA has carried out a risk assessment for such eventualities, and I should be grateful if the Minister would arrange for a copy to be placed in the House of Commons Library. I believe that the existing guidelines are flawed and I would respectfully suggest to the Select Committee on Transport that it consider them the next time it discusses the operation of the MCA. The guidelines should differentiate between different types of incident.

I also understand that a review of national search and rescue cover is due in the next few years through the Ministry of Defence. The MCA has explored the possibilities of sites for basing the helicopter other than the site at Portland in Dorset, but to no avail. If the agency abandons Portland now, it cannot go back, and it will have prejudged the outcome of that national review for the south coast. That cannot be right. Incidentally, the savings made by civilianising the service nationally would pay for a new hangar at Portland every year.

Any review must look for differential guidelines for different types of incident. Divers, for example, need to be taken to a decompression unit quickly—normally within 30 minutes—to prevent permanent or fatal damage. This year, there have so far been 50 incidents of divers being taken to the pool decompression unit by Whisky Bravo. Of those incidents, 17 were assessed as requiring rapid decompression to save life. Those divers could not have waited for the aircraft to come from Lee-on-Solent; they would have died or suffered serious permanent disability.

6 Nov 2002 : Column 136WH

The guidelines make no allowance for such incidents, and they should do so. If an area attracts a high number of incidents that require a faster medical response than the national guideline of one hour, the guidelines should be changed to reflect that fact.

There are other reasons why we need the service to remain at Portland. One reason is our economy. Tourism is the most important local industry to us on the south Dorset coast. Last December, the Dorset and east Devon coast received world heritage status from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Our coast uniquely exposes a perfect geological time line of the Jurassic age. The result, we hope, will be an increase in visitors coming to see the varied beauty of the area, from walkers on the coastal path to dinghies and small boats on the sea. We are already experiencing that increase. Each year, Whisky Bravo responds to 30 or 40 incidents from cliff top walkers and climbers. With world heritage status and the encouragement that we are giving to visitors, that number can only rise.

The Portland sailing academy sits alongside the Whisky Bravo hangar. The academy is the home of our national youth sailing teams, and if any hon. Members come to Portland harbour in the summer they will see those teams in training, including many of our Olympic medallists. The academy is the subject of a large lottery bid, which will develop the National Sailing Academy for the Royal Yachting Association. Sailing and water sports are the leading economic development driver for the area according to Weymouth and Portland borough council, and they are assessed as the leading economic driver for the area by the regional development agency, yet we are set to abandon them. Each year, Whisky Bravo responds to 40 or 50 incidents involving small boats and windsurfers. With the development of the sailing academy, the numbers will rise, as will the risk to the lives of people participating in those sports.

Removing Whisky Bravo puts at risk the economic development of our area, which will lose its reputation as a safe place to visit.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) on securing the debate and thank him for allowing me to intervene. As he knows, I represent an area to the east of his constituency, and our economies are inextricably linked. Does he agree that the views of those in the east and the hinterland of Poole harbour are just as strong as those in his own area and in the west? The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) and I have received thousands of representations. The move will have an impact on the local economy and activity, because people value the service greatly and we have many visitors to the harbour.

Jim Knight : I am grateful for the intervention. I agree that there is a strong link between the economies of my constituency and the Poole area. In fact, I represent 80 per cent. of the Poole harbour area, so I would certainly agree on that score.

There is nationwide interest in the issue. The 25,000 signatures do not come from constituents alone, but from divers, windsurfers, sailors and walkers from all over the British Isles who come to the Dorset coast and

6 Nov 2002 : Column 137WH

expect to have a safe experience. I plead with the Minister to make the right decision, and to tell us when it will be announced. We have made good progress. The cost of building the hangar has fallen since a solution to the flood risk was found, which was funded by the regional development agency. We simply must find the money now to build the replacement hangar at Portland.

I ask the Minister to listen to hon. Members, to the regional media and to the 25,000 petitioners and save our life-savers. What is a couple of million quid against the many lives that have been saved this year by the busiest search and rescue helicopter in the country?

1.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) on securing the debate, on the way in which he has conducted it and on his campaign during the past six months. He is certainly a tireless campaigner for his constituents. I have to say that I have felt, on occasions, almost as if I was being harassed by my hon. Friend, because every time I appeared somewhere he would dive on me and question me. I say, good for him, because Members of Parliament are here to give us a hard time about such things. He has missed no opportunity to make his point. I understand the powerful points that he has made today about safety, and I am also mindful of the other issues that he mentioned, such as the importance of inward investment to the Dorset coast and other parts of the region.

My hon. Friend has detailed much of the background, but it is appropriate to place the Portland helicopter issue in a national context. Before doing that, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) praised those who operate out of Culdrose, I would like to put on record my tribute to the courage and utter dedication, sometimes in the most extreme circumstances, of those who crew the nation's search and rescue helicopters. This is a very worthy subject and we should place on record our thanks to those people as a tribute to the work that they do on behalf of the people of this country.

The House will be aware that the helicopter that covers the Portland area is part of a national helicopter search and rescue coverage organisation. There are 12 search and rescue bases throughout the United Kingdom; eight are military bases and four are civil. Portland is one of the civil bases. With the exception of Portland, the bases operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The Portland aircraft operates for 12 hours a day, from 9 am to 9 pm each day all year round. That aircraft replaced the helicopter that was previously operated by the Royal Navy from the base hitherto known as HMS Osprey. The Portland helicopter is operated by Bristow Helicopters Ltd. under a contract to the MCA. According to the operational criteria for search and rescue helicopters that work 24 hours a day, civil aircraft should be available at 15 minutes' notice from 7.30 am to 9 pm daily and military search and rescue helicopters should be available from 8 am to 10 pm daily. Outside these times the aircraft should be on 45 minutes' notice. In practice, the aircraft are usually airborne within a few minutes of being notified during the day and within about 30 minutes at night. Each aircraft has a minimum

6 Nov 2002 : Column 138WH

operational radius of 180 miles, which takes into account the 30 minutes that it could take to winch up the 20 or so people that might be on the scene, and the need to retain 30 minutes worth of fuel for landing. The helicopters travel at about 120 knots.

The criteria for search and rescue helicopters were reviewed this year by the UK search and rescue strategic committee working under the aegis of my Department and were implemented on 1 April. That review followed a National Audit Office report in 1998 on civil maritime search and rescue, which recommended that consideration should be given to rationalising helicopter coverage on the south coast before renewing the Solent and Portland contracts in 2003.

The United Kingdom search and rescue strategic committee recommended the criteria that I mentioned and that the helicopter organisation on the south coast should remain as it is for the time being. Ministers accepted those recommendations in the knowledge that a further review of helicopter coverage by the MCA and the Ministry of Defence is under way to harmonise arrangements between military and civil facilities. The project is at the pre-business plan stage, and it is expected that initial reports will be made to Ministers in spring next year.

Outside the 9 am to 9 pm time, the Portland area is primarily covered by the coastguard civil contract helicopter at Lee-on-the-Solent in Gosport near Portsmouth—you might know that place, Mr. Hancock. The area can also be covered by military helicopters from the Royal Naval air station at Culdrose or the Royal Air Force base at Chivenor. Operational analysis has shown that the daytime national criteria can still be met for the Portland area by the helicopter at Lee-on-the-Solent.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset said, the current Portland base is in the hands of the South West of England regional development agency. It is rightly the job of the agency to develop the Osprey site commercially and for the benefit of the local community.

Jim Knight : Before my hon. Friend gets going on that section of his speech, does he acknowledge that there might be merit in looking again at the national guidelines to differentiate between different types of incidents, as I described in my speech?

Mr. Jamieson : That matter will certainly be considered . At present, the coverage that would be available if the change went ahead would be within existing national criteria and would amount to the same coverage as many other parts of the coast have. If I may declare an interest, I think that that includes my own area of Plymouth.

While the site is being commercially developed, it is necessary for the South West of England RDA to move the helicopter hangar and realign the runway, which is required for the helicopter under Civil Aviation Authority rules. The realigned runway has been bunded by a wall more than three metres high to protect the commercial sites either side from flooding. In short, the runway has become a sacrificial flood plain. The proposed new location for the hangar is outside the runway area. The RDA has agreed to pay for the

6 Nov 2002 : Column 139WH

preparation of the new location and to put a steel access door in the flood bunding to allow the helicopter access to and from the runway. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the enormous amount of work that he has put in, for resolving much of the detail with the RDA and for working with officials from the MCA. He has spent much of the past six months in discussion with them, and he has tirelessly pursued his case in meetings with me.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, the fundamental issue is funding for the new hangar. The estimated cost is between £2.5 million and £3.5 million. If the hangar had been rebuilt on its existing site, the cost, at today's prices, would have been about £1.5 million. That money was lost from the MCA's budget with the passing of time, and it does not have the required new funding in its budget plan. My hon. Friend has, therefore, made representations to me about central Government funding for the project, and I have listened long and hard to what he has said—not only today, but on other occasions.

It is a fact that the helicopter runway site is a sacrificial flood plain to allow commercial development of the site, and that the Portland operational area can be covered adequately from Lee-on-the-Solent within the national guidelines. We must not forget the view that was expressed by the National Audit Office in 1998.

Those points raise serious issues about the expenditure of taxpayers' money. There are already considerable pressures on the MCA's budget. It has continued to make efficiency savings and it has been bringing more ships on to the flag. It has also improved ways of working with the shipping industry. It has provided a much better service for about the same budgetary provision. The Department is also under pressure to provide funds, as is apparent from debates in the House and comments in the press and other places. Alas, those funds are not unlimited.

I understand the regional issues and the importance that is placed on the helicopter locally. I also understand the issues that were raised by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) about the Birmingham navy, because this issue does not affect only people on the coast. I accept his point about inward investment from the many waterborne activities that are pursued in the area—and from some of the further activities that have been proposed. I realise the importance of that, and how

6 Nov 2002 : Column 140WH

it might change the way in which this matter is considered. I shall need to balance the different arguments.

Jim Knight : It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify whether the MCA could sustain the ongoing revenue costs of maintaining a service at Portland. If it could do that, we are talking only about the capital cost. I know that that is a significant cost, but people in government often baulk at revenue costs and allow capital costs to be incurred.

Mr. Jamieson : My hon. Friend refers to two relevant issues: the extra capital cost of providing the new hangar on the site because of the type of development that has taken place under the South West of England regional development agency; and the ongoing extra revenue expenditure of maintaining it on that site, as well as of keeping the site going at Lee-on-the-Solent. We must consider the ongoing revenue costs, but the more important consideration for us at present is the extra capital cost that would be imposed on the MCA if the decision were taken to build the new hangar.

We will carefully consider the arguments that my hon. Friend has consistently made for quite some time—and those that have been made by other people in this House and outside—when we make recommendations to the Treasury about the funding for the new hangar. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the current position, and I undertake to inform him of any decision at the earliest opportunity. His assiduous pursuit of this matter has led us to rethink. The decision would have been taken a long time ago had it not been for his efforts in constantly raising new issues—and some of them have been very good issues—and for the way that he has conducted the argument.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and I assure him that the points that he has raised on behalf of his constituents will be given serious and careful consideration before the final decision is taken.

Mr. Sanders : Will the Minister comment on the risk assessment?

Mr. Jamieson : The risk assessment is currently commercially in confidence, but we will find out what information can be provided, and if any of it is useful, I will pass it on to the hon. Gentleman.

Question put and agreed to.

 IndexHome Page