We met with Mike Clark, the chairman of Solent Forum for well over a decade to find out how he sees the role of the Forum developing over the next decade.
The Solent Forum is a Coastal Partnership, formed in 1992, set-up as a neutral body to provide a platform toto enable the statutory members deliver Integrated Coastal Management in the Solent over all sectors within the wider social, economic and environment framework. It operates at a strategic coastal management level, providing a network for closer working relationships, information dissemination and discussion of topical coastal issues.
There are over 50 members in the partnership made up of a wide variety of organisations, including
- local government, • harbour authorities,
- Government agencies (such as EA and Natural England),
- trade associations ,
- consultants and
- NGOs, including Solent Protection Society which was one of the founder members.
The Forum runs a core service providing information and networking. It also runs special interest groups and a range of projects.
Quite apart from providing the opportunity for disparate interests to debate issues, Solent Forum has had several important successes. The Marine Consents Guide, which seeks to provide a path through the tangle of marine consent legislation which has mushroomed since the addition of European and UK environmental legislation after about 1992. The Guide, which was recently updated, has been nationally acclaimed.
More recently the Bird Disturbance project was in much more sensitive territory. Many sceptics thought it was an attempt by conservation NGOs to constrain development. But by passionately preserving its independence, the Forum has managed to produce a methodology acceptable to all, and the result is a guide that will be used by planners to determine whether or not bird disturbance is likely, and where mitigation or compensation may be needed. It is another project that has generated a lot of national interest.
Mike has noticed a significant change in expectations over the last couple of years resulting from the economic austerity. Members, especially on the steering Group, have tightened their approach to ‘value for money’. The role of the Forum continues to be to provide information, enable discussion and above all to serve the members.
There are other groups in the area such as SCOPAC, but they tend to be engineering led and concentrating on specifics such as coast defence and coast protection. Solent Forum provides a wider vision. Although the Forum is managed by its larger members such as government agencies, local authorities and key maritime industry interests, it seeks to serve all the stakeholders, including
- user groups (such as RYA) and
- other smaller clubs and societies.
It is noticeable that the operational staff of government agencies such as Natural England and the Environment Agency really value to Forum, but their financial colleagues see its funding as low hanging fruit when it comes to savings. So far, essential core funding has been protected, though project funding is definitely under close scrutiny, and likely to play an ever more important role in underpinning the activities of the Forum.
An aid to the new Marine Planning Process
While Solent Forum (together with Dorset and Southwest Forums) provides a readymade vehicle to act as a conduit between the new Marine Management Organisation (MMO) and the local stakeholders, Mike intends to maintain a clear independence. This means that the funding sources for projects should remain widely spread between the MMO, the government Agencies, and other members.
In the context of the current Marine Planning exercise for the South coast, the Forums can all provide important data to MMO, as well useful services such as organising stakeholder meetings. Both Solent Forum and Solent Protection Society remain concerned at the ability of the MMO to deliver some of its potential role efficiently. The recent delay in the nomination of Marine Conservation Zones because of incomplete science, while probably wise, also reflects a lack of wholehearted support and funding from central government that must cause some concern.
Of even more concern is the challenge of getting the very best from the development of Marine Planning. As a result of questions posed by Solent Protection Society (and others), MMO has acknowledged that the Marine Planning process ought to facilitate the understanding of cumulative effects of related projects, but that there is much to be done in this area. MMO has indicated to Solent Protection Society that it will explore the possibility of using Solent Forum as a vehicle to move this discussion forward.
More generally, both Solent Protection Society and Solent Forum remain concerned that MMO has yet to grasp the sheer complexity of the Solent and that, unlike many other coastal areas, the Solent and its industry works on a global scale. We are working on ways in which we can help the process.
Looking after the local people
With greater intensity of use, increased management and regulation is probably inevitable. Both Solent Forum and Solent protection Society recognise the problems of ‘consultation fatigue’ and the increasingly technical nature of complex consultations. We are asking whether, together, we can ease the problem for many local groups. This conversation is at an early stage. It is a great strength of Solent Forum that it simply provides the means for a discussion, but assiduously avoids having an opinion, Solent Protection Society can, and does express a view on Solent related matters. Both roles are important.