Southwold tanker decision looms on horizon

Controversial plans to create a ship-to-ship transfer zone off the coast of Southwold is set for a crucial parliamentary battle next week.

On Tuesday, a House of Commons committee is due to discuss whether an area of Sole Bay should become the only offshore zone within UK territorial water where tankers can exchange oil.

But in an unlikely political alliance, the Conservative MP for Suffolk Coastal, Dr Therese Coffey, and Labour's shadow minister for transport Jim Fitzpatrick will both call on the Seventh Delegated Legislation Committee to consider throwing out the plan, which has met with fierce opposition in the Southwold area.

Dr Coffey wants tankers to be able to transfer oil in all UK territorial waters to stop Southwold becoming a ' flashing beacon' for the giant vessels – while Labour only wants the transfers to take place in harbour authority waters.

If the committee agrees with the MPs's request, it could see the proposals to create an 'exclusive tanker transfer zone' in Sole Bay thrown out of Parliament within days of the meeting.

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Dr Coffey said she was not optimistic about de-railing the proposals. She said: 'I will be speaking to the committee on Tuesday to explain why I think the legislation is not correct and why Southwold should not be the only area. But I don't expect any of my colleagues to change their minds.'

Mr Fiztpatrick will be sitting on the committee as an opposition member and will try and use his influence to scupper the zone plan and prevent it reaching the House of Commons.

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However, if the committee agrees with shipping minister Mike Penning's plans for the Southwold zone, it could lead to the scheme being passed by MPs in the Commons a few days later.

Under parliamentary procedures, MPs could vote in the Commons without debating the proposals but they would have the committee's decision to help them decide how to vote. If the committee backs the government's plans, and MPs then voted along party line in the Commons, the government-backed zone would be approved.

Tuesday's meeting comes two months after Dr Coffey and Mr Fitzpatrick first joined forces to oppose the tanker zone, which is earmarked for an area about 12 miles off Southwold.

The government introduced a Statutory Instrument in Parliament on March 9 which could have seen the zone approved within 40 Parliamentary days. However, Dr Coffey and Mr Fitzpatrick tabled a motion opposing the Statutory Instrument by 'praying' against it – causing it to being delayed.

Further action by Mr Fiztpatrick and the Labour chief whip, Rosie Winterton, has led to the matter being called before Tuesday's committee, which will vote on what is officially termed as the Merchant Shipping (Ship-to-ship transfers)(Amendment) Regulations 2012 (S.I, 2012, No.72) measure.

Former Waveney Labour MP Bob Blizzard said he was pleased Mr Fitzpatrick's actions had led to Tuesday's crunch committee meeting and a vote on a issue which, he said, was 'vital' to Waveney's future.

Mr Blizzard said: 'I'm delighted that Jim Fitzpatrick, the shadow shipping minister, and the opposition chief whip have forced a vote on this issue which is so vital to our area. We simply cannot take risks with our coastal environment and our valuable tourism industry. It will be appalling if we become the oil tanker capital of Britain, as the only place where oil transfers at sea are allowed to take place.'

He said he felt that Waveney MP Peter Aldous should attend Tuesday's committee to take part in the debate.

Mr Aldous has previously told The Journal he supports the policy of not banning transfers as he thinks the practice benefits the area by creating jobs.

If approved the zone would be 1.5 miles in radius.

But anti-zone campaigners, including the Southwold and Reydon Society, say the zone would pose a risk that could threaten Waveney's seaside tourism industry, which is estimated to be worth �255m and has 6,000 jobs depending on it.

The previous Labour government had wanted to a blanket ban on all transfers in UK territorial waters in October 2010.

But when the current government came into power Mr Penning delayed the ban, allowing transfers to continue.

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