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Marine Radionavigation

Volume 171: debated on Wednesday 25 April 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what conclusions he has reached on the future of marine radionavigation in United Kingdom waters.

Following a lengthy period of public consultation and careful consideration, I have concluded in principle that, on technical and cost grounds, the balance of advantage for the United Kingdom would be to join the international civil Loran C system currently proposed for north-west Europe and the north Atlantic. This would be dependent on a satisfactory international agreement being reached within an acceptable time scale with the other interested states.This decision has not been an easy one. It would mean closing down in 1997 the present widely respected United Kingdom Decca navigator system, the origins of which date back to the second world war. The Decca system has been successfully operated by Racal Decca Marine Navigation Ltd. and its predecessors for several decades, and the marine community owes a considerable debt to the service, which is highly regarded.I have had the benefit of a wide range of responses to the Department's consultative document of June 1989. Many in the marine community, here and abroad, agree that we should not be wholly dependent for marine navigation on non-European military satellite systems such as the American global positioning system (GPS) and the Soviet GLONASS system and that a terrestrial civil alternative is needed. I am satisfied that the Loran C system would meet the United Kingdom's navigational requirements to acceptable technical standards and additionally would provide more extensive cover, and be less affected by seasonal and night-time errors.I have given particular consideration to the representations from the fishing industry, which is concerned about the costs of convering to Loran C. I fully appreciate the industry's extensive use of the Decca system for fishing as well as for navigation and I have considered the industry's points very carefully. However, if we introduce Loran C the fishing industry will gain some important benefits. Loran C's avoidance of seasonal and night skywave effects makes it a more consistent system. Moreover, a Loran C system would allow significant cost reductions, which will work through as lower light dues paid by fishermen. In the meantime I will look specifically at the light dues paid by fishermen at present, in light of representations they have made. The fishing industry will also be aware that I am currently considering a report by the British Ports Federation which recommends that pleasure craft should be brought into the light dues system so as to share the costs falling on the general lighthouse fund.Moreover, I am determined to ensure that there is a reasonable transitional period between Loran C becoming fully available and the Decca system being switched off. Given satisfactory progress in the international negotiations, the new United Kingdom transmitter could be operating by the end of 1992 and satisfactorily validated for use in repeatable mode before the end of 1993. This would allow a transitional period of over three years to 1997 for the conversion of the fishing industry's Decca records. The final reconfiguration of the new system would be in place at the latest by January 1995. I am also satisfied that the financial considerations favour adopting the Loran C scheme. There would be an even stronger financial case for Loran C, were it not for the cost of running both systems in the transitional period. I am satisfied that the cost to users of premature replacement of receivers, while difficult to assess, is not sufficient to undermine the case for change.My conclusion, therefore, is that the United Kingdom should not stand aside from the opportunity now offered for adopting a standard terrestrial regional radionavigation system under independent European control. Many countries are awaiting the United Kingdom decision before reaching their own, and in the longer term a favourable decision by the United Kingdom seems likely to increase the prospects of there being continuous Loran C cover throughout Europe, including the Mediterranean, the Iberian peninsula and the Baltic.It remains to be seen whether an acceptable Loran C international agreement can be concluded among a sufficient number of interested countries to produce a suitable international system. Our appraisal of the proposal has been on the assumption that there would be cost sharing with Canada, Denmark, the Federal Republic of Germany, France, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands and Norway. My officials will be making it clear to the countries involved in the international discussions that the United Kingdom will finally commit itself to a binding agreement only if the terms are right. This means that the eventually agreed system must remain a genuinely international dimension and have sufficient financial support from other benefiting countries in terms which for the United Kingdom are no worse than the current cost and cost share provisionally attributed to it. The United Kingdom's final commitment is also conditional on

(a) the location of, and the obtaining of the necessary approvals for, suitable sites for the new transmitter stations needed in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland; and (b) Parliament's approval of an order under section 34(3) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1979 to define Loran C as a beacon for the purposes of the general lighthouse fund, which would bear the United Kingdom costs. I expect to lay a draft order shortly.

The United Kingdom will also be making it clear to the other potential partners in the international agreement that our window for a decision in favour of Loran is time limited. In the event of a firm commitment to Loran C, I would wish to give the marine community about six years' notice of the ending of Decca transmissions. Under Racal Decca's current contract with the general lighthouse authorities, the system could not continue beyond February 1997. I am also conscious of the need for an adequate transition period of at least three years during which both the Decca and Loran C systems would be operating. These constraints mean that a delay beyond early to mid-1991 in ratifying an acceptable international agreement would, as far as can currently be seen, effectively rule out the United Kingdom's adoption of Loran C. Thus, if a firm agreement acceptable to the United Kingdom has not been reached by then, it would be my intention to withdraw from the international discussions and to consider with the general lighthouse authorities whether to arrange for modernisation of the United Kingdom Decca navigator system so that it could continue to operate beyond 1997.