End of the line for beach bomb squad

BOMB disposal experts who scour a north Northumberland beach for unexploded munitions are to be removed next year.

Defence bosses have confirmed that permanent staff will be withdrawn from RAF Goswick Sands during the spring, as part of a Ministry of Defence cost-cutting exercise.

But concerns have been raised over the consultation process, with MP Sir Alan Beith branding it ‘inadequate’.

A spokesman for the RAF confirmed: “The Minister for Armed Forces has endorsed the withdrawal of the RAF’s 5131 (Bomb Disposal) Squadron’s permanent team from Goswick Sands during spring 2012.”

The disposal team has been based at Goswick – which was used as an air weapons range during the Second World War – since 1995, searching the beach for munitions and dealing with any finds.

Under the new arrangements, the RAF says that it has ‘implemented a strategy proportionate to the risk at the site’, and Goswick Sands will continue to be monitored.

The RAF spokesman said: “Explosive Ordnance Clearance teams from 5131 (Bomb Disposal) Sqn will visit the site to clear and monitor objects as needed with geophysics surveys being planned to continue on a quarterly basis.

“Outside of these visits, in the unlikely event that an item of ordnance is identified, HM Coastguard or the civilian police, as standard operating procedure, would contact the Joint Service EOD Operations Centre who would task a suitable team to handle issues as they arise, in or out of working hours.”

He added that additional warning signs will be erected to inform the public of the potential dangers of digging.

Last Thursday, a meeting was held at Ancroft Village Hall to give residents the chance to raise their concerns and question Sqn Ldr Michael Haygarth, officer commanding for 5131 (Bomb Disposal) Squadron, about how munitions concealed at Goswick Sands will be dealt with in future.

During the discussion, which was chaired by Sir Alan Beith, Sqn Ldr Haygarth said that efficiency, cost and the reduction in the size of the RAF were the main factors behind the decision.

He said that most of the annual £283,000 spend at RAF Goswick would be saved.

The meeting was informed that there have been no reported ordnance-related accidents or deaths and that clearance work undertaken over the last 16 years had mitigated the risk at Goswick Sands to a level where the hazard posed to the general public is now assessed to be ‘extremely low and as low as is reasonably possible’.

He admitted the dedicated team at the site had done a good job but said: “The reality of life is that we need to take a cheaper way of doing things and this is the approach we are taking.

“It is not going to be worse for the general public.”

But residents raised concerns that the removal of permanent staff would lead to the loss of local knowledge of the area. They also said that they hadn’t been consulted about the plans.

Speaking afterwards, Sir Alan said: “The RAF should have done much more to explain to local residents what they were doing. I have already had several meetings with Ministers about the future of Goswick Sands and I will be taking up with them the inadequate consultation.

“Although there are large amounts of material buried under the sands, very little of it is potentially dangerous and there is no easy solution which removes all risk.

“Most people would have preferred to keep some permanent civilian staff at the site but the RAF has taken the view that this is not cost-effective.

“What is absolutely clear is that, as well as periodic sweeps of the area, bomb disposal experts will always be available when dangerous objects are found and will respond.”