Campaigners feeling bouyant after tanker transfer meeting

CAMPAIGNERS fighting plans to make Waveney's coastline an official haven for oil tankers received a double boost this week as the government delayed its decision on the issue.

An announcement had been expected on the proposal to make the stretch of coast between Southwold and Lowestoft the only area within UK territorial waters where ship-to-ship oil transfers could take place.

But on Tuesday, shipping minister Mike Penning said that, because of the sheer number of local objections, it would be at least June until he could take a final decision on whether or not to approve the move.

This means the very earliest that a zone could be created would be October 1 – six months later than expected.

And, in an apparent concess-ion to anti-tanker campaigners, the minister was said to be responsive to a separate plan to ban any tankers from mooring within nine miles of Southwold to stop them becoming a blot on its horizon.

The developments are the latest chapters in the saga of the transfers off Southwold and Lowestoft.

Last year, the then Labour government pushed through a ban to prevent the transfers taking place within the 12-mile UK territorial limit amid concerns that an oil spill could create an environmental disaster on Waveney's beaches.

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But later, a move to lift the ban, backed in its initial stages by new Suffolk Coastal MP Therese Coffey and Waveney MP Peter Aldous, sparked an outcry that prompted newly-appointed coalition government minister Mr Penning to reopen public consulations about the plans.

After months of protests, debate and political manoeuvring, the latest consultation exercise finally closed three weeks ago.

More than 150 people from north Suffolk have responded, delaying the final decision.

On Tuesday, a delegation from Southwold travelled to London to meet Mr Penning in an effort to persuade him to abandon the plans to lift the ban, which would effectively create an exclusive transfer zone off north Suffolk.

Members of Southwold and Reydon Society and Southwold and District Chamber of Trade of Commerce arrived at the meeting to discover that Mr Penning had put off his decision until June.

John Perkins, secretary of the Southwold Society, said the delegation had a full and frank discussion with Mr Penning as it tried to convince him to scrap the proposals.

He said he also told the minister that he would like to see a nine-mile exclusion zone following recommendations from a report into the Braer oil-spill disaster around Shetland in 1993.

Mr Perkins told The Journal: 'Mr Penning kept an open mind during the meeting and was clear and concise on all the issues.

'He said he would keep an open mind about the separate problem of ships mooring off Southwold.

'The minister did not seem unsympathetic to that... It was a good meeting.'

Mr Perkins went on to praise people who had taken part in the public consultation, saying 150 responses was magnificent.

It follows criticism of the lack of publicity surrounding the first consulation process, which drew only 30 replies.

Mr Perkins said: 'It proves it was wrong to exclude a large number of people from the first consultation.'

Most of the tankers that gather off Waveney's coast are Russian; their crews choose to take refuge in the relatively calm waters off Sole Bay while they await oil carried by smaller vessels that are able to operate in the Baltic Sea.

Some members of the business community support the creation of the zone.

They saying the ship-to-ship transfers contribute an estimated �5m to the local economy and argue that the area will be more vulnerable without a properly-regulated zone because, without it, transfers will continue unregulated outside the 12-mile limit.

After Tuesday's meeting, Mr Penning said: 'I have today announced a delay in the new ship-to-ship regulations coming into force until October 1. This is necessary for us to take full account of the representations we have received on this important issue.'