FRENCH authorities have condemned an "incomprehensible and dangerous" decision by the British government to stop funding a rescue ship that protects the busy Dover-Calais strait.
The UK has announced that it will pull out of a partnership with France to run the deep-sea tugboat, the Anglian Monarch, which spends half of its time in Dover and the other half in Boulogne-sur-Mer.
The ship has been in service since 2000 and costs e3.6m a year to run. It can reach a boat in trouble within 40 minutes, in what is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, used by more than 40,000 vessels each year.
French coastguards and councillors say withdrawing funding for the boat will endanger lives and expose the Channel to a greater risk of a major environmental disaster. They have set up a taskforce to find a way of paying the British half of the bill when it pulls out in September.
Pas-de-Calais president Dominique Dupilet said: "The decision by the British government is incomprehensible, dangerous and a false economy – e1.8m is nothing compared with the cost of a maritime
If the Anglian Monarch cannot be saved, there will be only one publicly-owned emergency towing vessel covering the whole Channel: the Abeille Liberté, 290km away at Cherbourg.
Gerard Baron, the president of the local branch of marine rescue body SNSM (Société Nationale de Sauvetage en Mer), said the strait was "a very dangerous zone".
"While it’s true that the ship is not needed for 340 days a year, and that it is costly to run, it plays an essential role in terms of prevention," he said.
"If there were an accident involving a ferry or a cargo ship, this tugboat would be very sorely missed."
British maritime union Nautilus has also condemned the plans, accusing the UK of "gambling with lives and the environment".
General secretary Mark Dickinson said: "The number of recent incidents and near-misses in the Channel alone serves to demonstrate the value of this vessel and it is clear that the government is running a significant risk in removing the protection it provides.
"The proposed savings represent a drop in the ocean in terms of the overall department budget but the loss could make the difference between life and death or an environmental disaster."
The UK Department of Transport has defended the decision. It said keeping the tow vessels was not a "correct use of taxpayers’ money", and public funds should not be spent on rescuing private cargo ships. It estimates that the savings from axing the Anglian Monarch, and three other similar vessels will add up to £32.5m (e38.3m) over the next four years.
The UK’s announcement that it was pulling out of the French partnership came less than a week before Britain and France were signing a joint defence treaty that will see greater co-operation between the two nations.