SPS Comments to DEFRA on the Draft Marine Bill

Posted on 22 Jun 2008

This society was formed in 1956 to ensure the ecological and environmental well-being and wise management of the Solent waters, including its creeks, rivers and harbours and its foreshores and surrounding lands.

As such the Society has studied the Draft Marine Bill with interest and our comments are given below.

The proposals in this very lengthy and complex Bill that are of most interest to the Society are:

  • the marine planning system
  • the Marine Management Organisation
  • access to coastal land
  • marine nature conservation

These four topics were the main items in our response to the Government’s Marine Bill White Paper and to its Consultation Paper on Access to the Coast.

1. The Marine Planning System

1.1 As we said in our comments on the White Paper, we strongly support marine spatial planning in principle, provided it is well related to Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM), and we attached enormous importance to the consultation process related to plan preparation.

1.2 The Draft Bill’s Policy Paper suggests a six-year planning and review cycle, each plan being supervised by a project board in accordance with guidance to be produced within the next two years. We note the intention to involve a range of stakeholders to play a full role throughout the process, and that steering groups will be provided by the ‘Planning Body’ for the region (see our comments below on the role of the Marine Management Organisation, to whom the function of planning will be delegated by the Secretary of State).

1.3 With the exception of matters that we will be raising below, this seems to us to be satisfactory in principle, provided the marine plan relates to clearly defined marine areas that have a strong identity and that marine and coastal interests should be looked at together in the process on ICZM. Without doubt the Solent is one such area.

1.4 Marine Plans, when completed, will be the basis for decisions under the new and simplified Licensing system, and they will, of course, also be the basis for relevant management by Statutory Agencies, Harbour Authorities and Local Authorities, and for exercise of byelaws and voluntary codes of contact.

2. The Marine Management Organisation

2.1 Our comments on the White Paper broadly welcomed the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), though we stressed the need for this potentially very centralised organisation to be counterbalanced by the active involvement of local bodies in the processes that it is concerned with.

2.2 The Bill’s Policy Paper goes a long way towards meeting such points, in that the MMO is intended to build strong relationships with Local Authorities and coastal stakeholders, to have a Stakeholder Advisory Committee, and a network of coastal offices. To get to this stage will clearly take a considerable time, however, even though the MMO will at first be built on the existing Marine and Fisheries Agency. As to the function of the MMO, the Policy Paper says that it will act as ‘the UK Government’s strategic delivery body in the marine area’, guided by a Marine Policy Statement to be issued by Government. As well as planning, it will have an important research function; for this it will obviously depend on data from many outside sources, including Local and Harbour Authorities. Some of its services may be charged for, and, if so, we believe that there should be reciprocal arrangements.

2.3 Despite the clarification of the MMO’s role and local involvement, we need to express our continuing concern about the way in which its functions will be exercised, and the lengthy time proposed for establishing it. Clearly the MMO’s planning activity will have to rely very much on local expertise, and it should not constrain local initiatives to get on with (and lead) marine planning within the context of the Bill. Furthermore, the gradual process of establishing the MMO could very likely delay and complicate such initiatives. Thus some means will have to be found whereby local bodies are actively encouraged to proceed informally in critical areas such as the Solent, rather than wait for several years while the new organisation is established and its staff (postulated as around 40) are familiarised with the character of local areas and their needs.

3. Access to Coastal Land

3.1 When responding to the Consultation Paper on this topic, we agreed entirely with the importance of improving coastal access, but pointed to some of the very serious practical difficulties that access rights over the entire length of the coast may cause in parts of the Solent’s uniquely estuarial form, with its international wildlife values. We felt that the prime responsibility for access should remain in local hands, and that new provision and maintenance should be adequately financed.

3.2 The Bill says that an English coastal route will be proposed strategically by Natural England (NE), but in close consultation with local interests, and that it will take due account of issues such as impacts on nature conservation and land use. The need for consultation with landowners and, for example, parish councils is recognised, and it is clear that, in practice, NE will work through local access authorities (eg County and Unitary Councils). Furthermore, the right of access will be subject to restrictions or exclusions, for example, for nature conservation and land management purposes. We consider that the Bill must make it absolutely clear that, where there is a conflict of interest between public access and wildlife conservation, the latter must take precedence (along the lines of the well established ‘Sandford Principle’).

3.3 Given the intention to secure a long distance coastal route as a matter of Government policy, the approach in the Bill seems reasonable, and it removes some of the doubts that we had at the consultation stage. Although implementation of the route could well give rise to major issues in some areas, we believe that the provision for consultation, and, in particular, for working through local access authorities, offers a fair chance of resolving route problems by negotiating local balance between the interests of recreation, land management and conservation. Where the rights of way authority (as in the case of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight) is willing to take the lead in preparing a coastal access strategy, in order to be proactive in improving coastal access without prejudicing the interests of wildlife conservation or of landowners, the Bill should make provision for this to happen, whilst requiring that the coastal access strategy is prepared in close consultation with Natural England and other interested parties. It is essential, however, that new routes and the maintenance of existing ones are adequately financed, that local authorities are given the opportunity to plan and implement the new routes, and that landowners should receive adequate compensation where there is a good case for this.

3.4 Apart from the latter points, we do not need to raise any major concerns at this stage.

3.5 It should be noted that the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee earlier announced that they were to carry out a pre-legislative scrutiny of the coastal access aspects of the Draft Marine Bill, and having invited views on these provisions in the Bill by Monday 19th May 2008, the relevant paragraphs of this report have already been sent to by this Society.

4. Marine Nature Conservation

4.1 In giving our views on marine nature conservation in the White Paper, we welcomed the proposals in principle, but pointed out that marine areas often host a wide range of activities that are not conservation-related but nevertheless are broadly compatible with conservation objectives. We felt that a more sophisticated regime should be applied to areas with multiple uses, although with an emphasis primarily on conservation. This would apply, for example, in the Solent, where strict control for conservation reasons could severely constrain aspects of recreational sailing and, possibly, commercial fishing.

4.2 The Draft Bill introduces, for good reasons, a new type of marine protected area, the Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ). It appears that a necessary network of these could well include the Solent on account of its existing European Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation. The Bill provides that there should be stakeholder consultation in the process of designating MCZs and that the final decision on any area would be taken by Ministers. The importance of economic or social consequences is emphasised, and in most cases conservation objectives ‘would allow sustainable and benign activities to take place’ (quoted from the Bill’s Policy Paper). In the most highly protected areas, however, it appears that there could be severe effects on the movement of vessels.

4.3 Defra is developing more detailed guidance on how the nature conservation provisions of the Bill will be implemented. Although much will depend on the actual content of such guidance, we can see a risk, nevertheless, that if regulation in the more sensitive ecological areas should be draconian, it might interfere with the customary use of the seas, overlap the reasonable responsibilities of Harbour Authorities, and need specific enforcement powers and staff.

4.4 On balance, therefore, while supporting the national case for improved marine conservation, it is essential that we express concern, at this stage, about the possible effects of MCZs in busy areas of multiple use such as the Solent. It may be that if marine planning in such areas were able to set a balanced multi-use perspective, this could be an effective guide to the MCZ regime so that it is exercised in a strategic way. This remains to be seen, but meanwhile we are reluctant to give whole-hearted support to designation of MCZs in such areas until a great deal more is known about the criteria to be used for their selection, and the manner in which they will be implemented, including regulation and enforcement. Maybe a more broadly based form of designation (we suggested a Marine Multiple Use Area in our comments on the White Paper) should still be considered.

5. Summary

While welcoming in principle the Bill’s proposals for marine planning, marine management, access to coastal land, and marine nature conservation, we ask that the following points be taken fully into consideration:

  • Local organisations should be given the opportunity of holding a lead role, within the general guidance of the proposed Marine Management Organisation, in the process of marine planning and management in specific areas (paragraph 2.3).
  • Similarly, local access authorities be given the opportunity of a lead role, in consultation with Natural England, to plan and implement sections of the English coastal route in their areas, and be adequately financed for the purpose; and landowners should receive adequate compensation where necessary (paragraph 3.3).
  • The designation of Marine Conservation Zones should have regard to the need for a balance of aims, policies and management in busy coastal areas of multiple use, with the possibility that a more broadly based form of designation might be considered (paragraph 4.4).

Signed by the SPS Chairman and dated the 19th June 2008