Girdle Ness LighthouseEstablished in 1786 the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) will celebrate 230 years of continuous operation and service to the mariner in 2016.

With some of its lighthouses now over 200 years old they continue to serve the same purpose as when they were built – to serve the mariner for the safety of all (In Salutem Omnium), which is the Board’s motto.

In April 2014 Commodore Mike Bullock MBE took over as the Northern Lighthouse Board’s Chief Executive. We hear about the Board’s current priorities and what his fi rst year in post has been like.

Prior to the joining the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) what was your background?

My background is very much Royal Navy - I took early retirement from the Royal Navy in the rank of Commodore to join the NLB. During my naval career of 34 years I had extensive experience both at sea and ashore as a Logistician, serving in a total of six ships and submarines, including the Submarine HMS Revenge based in Faslane, the Destroyer HMS Liverpool based in Rosyth and the Aircraft Carrier HMS Illustrious; I also worked in the British Embassy Washington DC, the NATO Headquarters in Northwood London, the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall and the US Department of Defense in the Pentagon. My final appointment was in Navy Command Headquarters, Portsmouth where I had responsibility for Logistics and Infrastructure for the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

You have now been in post for one year what have your first impressions been?

My very first visit to No 84 George Street, Edinburgh (Headquarters of the Board) was back in January 2014 for my interview and I came away with the clear impression that the NLB is populated by a family of enthusiasts both passionate and proud about the work they do, with a real sense of ‘service’ and in my short time with the Board I have seen nothing to change this view. There is something rather special about what the NLB does and I have been struck by the universally positive interest of friends, family and even complete strangers when I mention that my work involves looking after lighthouses!

I have also begun to truly appreciate the remarkable history and heritage of the NLB, most obviously in the form of the amazing buildings we look after but also from the people I have met, whether that be staff who are third or fourth generation employees of the Board or retired Keepers and their families. The NLB is one of three General Lighthouse Authorities (GLAs) for the British Isles and I have very much valued the spirit of cooperation and support between us and Trinity House and Commissioners of Irish Lights.

Can you briefly explain how the Northern Lighthouse Board is governed?

NLV Pole Star The origins of the Board’s constitution date right back to 1786 when the Board of Commissioners was established which included the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General for Scotland, a number of Lord Provosts and the Sheriffs (Judges) of Scotland’s maritime counties. The Board’s makeup remains remarkably similar today with the addition of a number of co-opted Non-Executives who provide business and mariner expertise (the Board currently has four Commissioners who are Master Mariners) and includes Representatives nominated by the Department of Transport and the Isle of Man Government. The 19 Commissioners support me and my Directors through a number of Committees and Boards providing oversight and strategic direction.

How many people work for the Northern Lighthouse Board and where are they based?

There are just under 200 employees covering an approximate length of coastline of 6,214 miles (10,000km), a land area of 30,405sq miles (77,700 sq km) and 790 islands which is impressive by any standard. The headquarters is in the centre of Edinburgh which in addition to Finance, Procurement, HR, IS, Health & Safety and support staff has Navigation experts and Project Engineers. At our base in Oban we have staff who manage, maintain and refurbish our fleet of buoys, this is also the base for our two ships NLV Pharos and NLV Pole Star. We also have small teams of Area Maintenance Engineers based in Edinburgh, Oban, Inverness, Orkney and Shetland.

How many Aids to Navigation does the Northern Lighthouse Board provide?

We are responsible for a network of 206 lighthouses, 165 Buoys, 26 Beacons, 4 Differential Global Positioning System Stations, 29 Racons, 35 AIS Stations and 1 GLA shared eLoran system spread across Scotland and the Isle of Man and their waters.

You started in April 2014, with the Scottish Referendum Vote taking place in September 2014 – what has the outcome of that vote meant for the Northern Lighthouse Board?

Over the autumn and early winter period we have worked closely with senior officials in the Department for Transport and Transport Scotland to determine the changes that further Devolution of powers from Westminster to Holyrood would bring. In brief the Smith Commission recommends two, firstly that the Scottish Government would appoint a Commissioner to our Board. We maintain the same number of Commissioners so one of the existing co-opted Commissioners has taken on this additional responsibility. The second proposed change is that we will annually lay our accounts before the Scottish Parliament. Our funding arrangements derived from Light Dues paid by ship-owners via the General Lighthouse Fund will remain unchanged and I see the newly formalised links to the Scottish Government to be a really positive step which is likely to offer new opportunities for us.

Everyone thinks about the provision of aids to navigation, ie lighthouses, buoys and beacons, as the key role of the Board, but what other services do you provide?

Over the last year I have tried to get round our estate with our dedicated teams to get a true understanding of what we do and the conditions and environment our people work in. As part of this process I recently accompanied our Coastal Inspector on the west coast of Scotland looking at the navigational requirements at aquaculture sites, an industry of growing importance in Scotland providing valuable jobs and income for the economy. This gave me a great insight to the other work we do in our Statutory roles of inspecting all aids to navigation provided by Local Lighthouse Authorities, Offshore Oil and Aquaculture operations within our area of jurisdiction. We also undertake audits of Local Lighthouse Authority with respect to compliance with the Aids to Navigation requirements of the Port Marine Safety Code.

Oban One of our other statutory roles includes the marking of Wrecks which pose a threat to navigation safety. Most recently we deployed our vessel NLV Pharos in response to the tragic loss of MV Cemfjord which sank on 2 January 2015 in the Pentland Firth. Once on station Pharos established the exact position of the wreck and confirmed that marking was not required as there was plenty of safe water over the wreck itself, however the ship remained in the area to assist the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) and later provided support for the deployment of an ROV to conduct a visual survey.

To give the NLB the operational resilience and flexibility to respond to real-time incidents, including responding to wrecks we have a degree of reserve capacity within our assets and when statutory work allows we use this to undertake work on behalf of other organisations, the income from which goes to offset our running costs. The tasks we undertake are wide ranging for example the provision of buoy services to a number of Port Authorities and Councils, the use of Pharos in support of the NATO Submarine Rescue System, deployment of Oceanographic buoys on behalf of the Met Office and we even rent out our jetty in Oban during the Summer season for the weekly storing and passenger changeover of the wonderful cruise liner Hebridean Princess. In support of the requirement for navigational markings on Offshore structures the NLB has developed the “Rigwatcher” self-contained and air deliverable aid to navigation designed for long term and temporary use on decommissioned offshore structures.

The Board’s Mission Statement is:- “To deliver a reliable, efficient and costeffective Aids to Navigation service for the benefit and safety of all Mariners” – how does the Board actually deliver that statement?

The Board is required through the UK commitment to SOLAS to operate in accordance with International recommendations and guidelines. For marine Aids to Navigation the standards are set by the International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities (IALA). The Board is an active member of this body and we are heavily involved in its Committees and work groups which enables all members to share expertise and experiences. IALA sets stringent standards for the operational availability of aids to navigation and I am very proud to say the Board consistently exceeds these standards of reliability. We are always looking at costs and where savings can be made to keep the level of Light Dues paid by the mariner down. In October 2014 the GLAs announced a £13M seven-year contract with PDG Helicopters for the provision of helicopter services to cover all three Authorities. The provision of one helicopter supplier across the GLAs will deliver significant cost savings of around £7.9M to the General Lighthouse Fund.

We are also permitted under The Merchant Shipping and Maritime Safety Act 1977 to utilise any reserve capacity in our statutory programme to offer marine support services to clients commercially, this additional income also helps keep our costs down.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - July 2015 Issue
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