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Rising costs of leisure accidents.

Byline: By Stephen Rouse

The thrill-seeking industry is now a key part of the North economy. But who pays when things go wrong? Stephen Rouse reports.

It's a hard time to be in the stag party business.

Under fire for allegedly creating chaos in the cities, the industry now stands accused of bringing havoc to our mountains and coastlines.

Demand for the thrills of quad biking, jet skiing, diving, rafting and mountain biking is higher than ever on stag weekends, corporate breaks and other high-octane get-aways.

And demand is higher than ever for lifeboatmen, mountain rescue teams and paramedics to pick up the pieces.

Ray McDermott, Unison branch secretary for the North-East Ambulance Service, has noticed a marked increase in accidents involving off-road vehicles and bikes. These are invariably in remote places ( tough terrain for two paramedics carrying a stretcher ( and the fire brigade is often called in to help.

Mr McDermott is fully behind calls for operators of high-risk leisure activities to pay a charge to cover the increasing cost to the rescue services.

He said: "They should be paying. They are going out to take part in sports that could lead to serious injury, requiring the emergency services to be called out."

The submerged wrecks off the North Northumberland coast around Seahouses are also proving increasingly attractive to weekend thrill-seekers. Further down the coast, at Beadnell, jet-skis are causing the problems.

Last summer, Ian Clayton and crewmates with the North Sunderland Lifeboat service were called out to divers in trouble nearly every weekend.

If a case of the bends is suspected, the patient has to be helicoptered at low level to the nearest decompression chamber ( either at Hull or Aberdeen.

The cost of launching the lifeboat is around pounds 6,000 a time, while the cost of raising an RAF Boulmer helicopter just three inches off the ground has been put at pounds 3,000.

Richard Holmes, team leader with the Northumberland National Park Search and Rescue team, has seen little increase in the number of accidents ( but their nature is changing.

He said: "There has been an impact with things like mountain bikes ( it can take a lot longer to find them."

Across the North Pennines, there has been a marked increase in accidents since visitors returned to the Lake District following the foot- and-mouth disaster of 2001.

Cumbria's 13 mountain rescue teams were called out 366 times last year ( up from 328 in 2003.

The situation seems unsustainable for many of the rescue services.

The mountain rescue teams are locked in an endless cycle of fund-raising abseils and walks to pay for equipment. The RNLI costs pounds 110m a year to run and is heavily dependent on a dwindling number of legacies.

The Scottish Parliament recently created a system of central funding for rescue teams in the Highlands. And the House of Commons transport select committee recently recommended Government make funding available for mountain rescue and lowland search services.

However, Mr Holmes says the feeling in the mountaineering community would be against any funding scheme run by Government, which would bring with it all the bureaucratic apparatus of targets and regulation.

The Great North Air Ambulance Service reckons 25pc of its call-outs are caused by leisure activity.

But the service is against any kind of charging system replacing its reliance on charitable donations.

Liaison officer Pippa Holt said: "We don't want to get into a situation where people start thinking they don't want to call us to rescue because they would have to contribute."

She is echoed by Mike Wood, marketing director of Freedom Ltd, which offers quad biking, off-road karting and rafting to stag parties weekending in Newcastle.

Mr Wood recommends better regulation of the stag and activity industry, so that all operators meet safety standards. He points out that any levy would be passed on to the consumer, jeopardising what is now a pounds 400m industry.

Ian Clayton, of the North Sunderland Lifeboat service agrees. He said: "I think it would be difficult to force people to contribute and it would have an adverse affect on the local economy. Tourism is so crucial round here and we wouldn't want to deter people from coming."
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jun 10, 2005
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