Portland and Boulmer SAR to close in privatisation

In a further blow to the beleaguered Coastguard service, the government confirmed Monday that the search-and-rescue helicopter service is to be provided by a civilian contractor.

Coastguard SAR operations at Portland in Dorset will cease in 2017, while those at RAF Boulmer in Northumberland will end a year earlier.

The Department for Transport has begun a procurement process to find a civilian service provider for the whole of the UK over a 10-year period.

Current arrangements have SAR jointly provided by four civilian bases contracted to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) which operates its Sea King helicopters from eight military bases.

One of those military bases is RAF Valley in Anglesey, from which Prince William’s helicopter set out to help save survivors of the Russian tanker Swanland over the weekend.

It was already planned that the MoD would retire its Sea King helicopters early in 2016 – and the new contractor will pick up at this point. However, the wholesale privatisation was put on hold in February when the preferred bidder to the contract admitted it had inside information. An interim SAR arrangement with the RAF and Royal Navy was put in place to maintain cover temporarily.

In Transport Secretary Justine Greening’s announcement she said that the contract went out to tender today and should be awarded early in 2013, giving the successful bidder time to prepare its new, fast fleet of modern helicopters before fully taking over at the remaining 10 bases.

Reaction from the opposition was unsurprisingly sceptical. Maria Eagle, the Shadow transport secretary, said: ‘This decision coming so soon after the decision to close nearly half of the UK’s Coastguard stations means there will be real concern that a desire to cut costs is driving decision-making and not the need to maintain safety and security around the UK’s coastline.’

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Image: Coastguard helicopter on exercise with RNLI off Dorset – RNLI/P Elleray