By Martin Parsons
On Thursday Labour Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle made the extraordinary claim that the planned coastguard station closures were the result of the coalition cutting the transport budget “too far and too fast”. I say ‘extraordinary’ because what the government is proposing is a somewhat scaled back version of a closure plan that was drawn up by the last Labour government of which Miss Eagle was a minister. In fact, I exposed part of that plan on Conservative Home – the closure of at least one of the main coastguard stations on the East Coast – more than two months before the general election.
Faced with a shadow Transport Secretary who apparently does not even know what her own party’s policy was when they were in government little over a year ago, it would seem that Philip Hammond and his team have little to worry about!
What should perhaps concern Mr Hammond more is the relationship between his department’s decision making and the government’s localism agenda. The responses to the government’s consultation on the coastguard closure plan were overwhelmingly against closure, with a particular fear that the local knowledge and expertise coastguard officers have would over time be lost if regional Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centres were replaced by more nationally based ones.
The coastguard consultation is not the only area of conflict between decision making at the Department for Transport and the ideal of localism. I will give just one other example – though there are many that could be used:
Earlier this year the government held a local consultation along the stretch of the North Suffolk where I live on a proposal to make the coast between Southwold and Lowestoft the only area in UK waters where offshore oil transfers between tankers would be allowed. The previous Labour government had quietly agreed with tanker companies that this would be the ‘preferred location’ for such transfers, a decision that led to the coast suddenly finding the largest number of tankers in the western world anchored off it. Tankers carrying Russian oil from the Baltic were unloading into large supertankers that were too big to negotiate the Baltic. The then local MP, the admirable John Gummer (now Lord Deben) worked tirelessly to persuade Labour ministers to ban these transfers. The North Suffolk coast is an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), has a national nature reserve, a RAMSAR site of international environmental importance, is a site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and tourism directly employs 12% of local people in an area with few employment alternatives…one could go on. The ban was eventually brought in, but within weeks of the new parliament sitting the shipping minister Mike Penning MP was persuaded to suspend the banning order. When several of us living in the area enquired how this had happened without any consultation, we were told by the government’s chief shipping adviser that there had been a ‘consultation’ and it had been advertised on the Department for Transport’s website. In fact, no such consultation either past or present was listed on the DfT website, nor were those of us who had taken part in previous consultations on the issue informed. Eventually, after much pressure the minister announced a further consultation just for local residents. We were assured that this was a genuine consultation and the decision had not already been taken. The majority of the responses were strongly against the tanker transfers being allowed. The strength of local opinion was clearly demonstrated in a public meeting in Southwold in April. Anyone who says public meetings are dead should have been there. The hall was packed with around 300 people from the surrounding area and, despite a few people from outside the area brought in to speak by the tanker companies, was overwhelmingly against the tanker transfers being allowed there. A sentiment that was made even stronger by the fact that a tanker had recently nearly sunk a local fishing boat and not even stopped. I sat in that public meeting watching local people trying to take control of their own local environment, and thought – “this really is the big society, and it may not always be comfortable to government, but this really is the big society working”. It was local people wanting to take control of and protect their own local environment and the jobs that depend on it. Then despite all of that, and despite protests form the Orkney Islands council where the oil transfers had previously taken place inside Scapa Flow harbour, the shipping minister decided last month to make the North Suffolk coast the only UK area where tankers could transfer oil between each other at sea. You can imagine the local reaction.
This has been compounded by the government’s decision this week to go ahead with the closure of both Great Yarmouth Coastguard station which covers the East Anglian coastline north of Southwold and the Thames (Walton on the Naze) coastguard that covers the East Anglian coast up to Southwold – which now of course has the largest anchorage of oil tankers in the western world. The area is also only a few miles away from where the Eleni V oil spill disaster happened in 1978 after that tanker was hit by another ship in days when there were far fewer tankers off the coast than today.
This issue of central government decision making versus localism has come to the fore with the coastguard closure programme that the coalition has inherited from Labour. There are of course strengths in both sides – central government has to look at the ‘big picture’ and use professional advice from senior public servants relating to issues such as the use of new technology by the coastguard. However, local consultation has great strengths too, local people have specific local knowledge that can sometimes be as important as that of senior civil servants based in London. For example, many of those living and working on the East Anglian coast are very aware that the pattern of sandbanks both offshore and in estuaries is constantly shifting. This is because uniquely, the Southern North Sea functions as a sediment trap collecting sediment from other areas as a result of its funnel shape. The area also has the unusual feature of rotating tidal currents, which rotate around a point of zero tidal rise (termed an amphidromic node) located between North Suffolk and the Netherlands. These currents help create constantly shifting sands in inshore waters and estuaries which mean that technology alone cannot be relied on to ensure maritime safety, local knowledge is also essential.
Clearly, the government has to find an effective way of bringing its localism agenda into central government decision making. If it does not then it risks killing the localism agenda before it is even properly born. At the moment it appears to be struggling to do so.
However, one way to do this relates to how the government conducts consultations. During the time of the last Labour government many public consultations seemed to be little more than a perfunctory exercise, with the policy effectively predetermined and civil servants employed in finding ways of answering whatever objections were raised, without actually changing the proposed policy. This has understandably led to a significant degree of scepticism by many people about public consultations and who can blame them for that?
However, therein lies both the problem and potentially the solution to the tension between localism and central government decision making. There needs to be a change of culture in Whitehall. That culture shift needs to move from the ‘Whitehall knows best’ mentality that is so deeply ingrained in the senior civil service, to viewing consultation responses, particularly local consultation responses, as somewhat akin to the House of Lords. In other words they need to be treated as a revising chamber – as a process that will refine, revise and even on occasions lead to the demise of proposed government policies because they have been demonstrated to be inadequate, unworkable or detrimental to the local area. That of course is what consultations should always do – but the simple fact is that for several years now that does not appear to have been given the weight that it should have been. It is that culture shift in Whitehall that is urgently needed if the government’s very right localism agenda is to survive.
And a good place to start would be the coastguard closure programme that the government has inherited from Labour…