Introduction and Summary
A ‘Solent National Waterpark’ was proposed by the Society fifty years ago, at the instigation of leading members Sir Hugh Casson and Maldwin Drummond. Unfortunately the time was not right for this imaginative idea to take shape, but there has recently been a massive renewal of interest, internationally and nationally, in the conservation of sea areas. This, and the likelihood of a Marine Bill being published by the Government next autumn, presents a new opportunity.
Furthermore, the National Park concept, the purpose of which is to integrate open air recreation and conservation in countryside areas of national importance for both, has received a new lease of life. The New Forest has now been designated as a National Park; a similar proposal is under consideration for the South Downs; and two National Parks have recently been established in Scotland.
For sea areas, Marine National Parks already exist in many parts of the world, and are now under consideration in Scotland. In this report which we hope will be read by members of the general public as well as coastal experts we therefore look again at the idea, focussing our attention on the West Solent rather than the Solent as a whole, for reasons that are explained.
The report’s major points, in summary, are:
- The West Solent’s outstanding qualities are widely recognised and are different from those of the East Solent, Southampton Water and Portsmouth Harbour. It is a coastal waterway with few equals in England and Wales (paras 1.2, 1.3, 1.4). The main pressures impacting on it arise from recreation, but to a lesser extent from shipping, fishing, climate change and pollution (paras 2.1 to 2.6).
- Although the number of craft moorings in the West Solent is small compared with the Solent as a whole, there is a significant user influx from outside, the implications of which need consideration (para 2.2).
- The maintenance of a fishing industry would be helped by a study of the ecology, health and exploitation of the stock (para 2.4).
- Difficult decisions will have to be made on how to deal with the impact of climate change on the West Solent, and there is likely to be some re-thinking of pollution control strategy for the area as a result of the Water Framework Directive (paras 2.5, 2.6).
- There is no marine planning system in the West Solent (as indeed is the case in other sea areas) comparable to the comprehensive systems on land (para 3.4).
- Ideally, the multitude of users and their interests in the West Solent might well be best co-ordinated, represented, managed and strategically developed through a Marine National Park, covering an area from the Needles/Hurst Spit (in the west) to Lepe/Gurnard (in the east), bounded by mean low water mark and the harbour limits of Lymington and Yarmouth (para3.5)
- The ‘pluses’ of an established Marine National Park outweigh the ‘minuses’ (para 3.6).
- It is important, therefore, that the proposed Marine Bill, to be published in the autumn of 2006, should provide for the establishment of Marine National Parks generally (para 4.2).
- Pursuit of the above issues through the Bill would more effectively be achieved by the Society in conjunction with other organisations, particularly with the help of a debate in the Solent Forum (para 4.3).
- The aim, in principle, should be to have the West Solent designated a Marine National Park, planned and managed through an appropriate partnership of statutory and non-statutory bodies concerned with the area (para 5.2).
- In preparation for this, there is a need to develop in more detail the aims, administration and funding of such a partnership, and to enlist the support of local MPs and other interested parties (paras 5.1, 5.3 to 5.5).
- An appendix to the report gives brief particulars of 11 Marine National Parks overseas, proposals for at least one in Scotland, and the Chichester Harbour Conservancy
1. The character of the West Solent
1.1 Stretching from the Needles to Lepe, the West Solent is a very special part of the Solent waters. On the mainland side, bounded by the coastal plain, estuaries and woodlands of the New Forest, its outstanding features include the remote shingle ridge of Hurst Spit and its castle, the contrasting beauty of the Keyhaven and Beaulieu Rivers, and the busy Lymington River. On the Island side it is contained by the dramatic cliffs of the Needles promontory, low lying cliffs, pasture and woodland further east, chalk hills and, notably, the historic harbour of Yarmouth and sheltered Newtown Creek. Over 13 miles long and about 3 miles wide, the West Solent is a very popular waterway for recreational sailing and a tourist attraction, and is used to a limited extent by shipping. It is a prime habitat for birds, summer and winter, an important oyster fishery, and contains a wealth of marine archaeological sites. All these attributes, natural and cultural, combine to make it an economic resource of importance to the area.
1.2 The West Solent’s excellent qualities are recognised by various official designations of national and international importance: the New Forest National Park; the Island’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Heritage Coast; eight Sites of Special Scientific Interest; two National Nature Reserves (North Solent and Newtown Creek); an extensive Ramsar site (which includes a European Special Protection Area and Special Area of Conservation), and a further Special Area of Conservation, all with European legal obligations; designated shellfish waters; and several protected monuments and wrecks.
1.3 By comparison, the East Solent, Southampton Water and Portsmouth Harbour are more urbanised, and their national economic and defence importance is reflected in the navigational controls exercised by Associated British Ports as a Harbour Authority, and the Queen’s Harbour Master. Like the West Solent, however, they, together with Langstone and Chichester Harbours, are valuable sites for wildlife. These are the busiest parts of the Solent’s renowned sailing waters, but the West Solent’s setting, comparable in quality to Chichester Harbour, though more diverse, make this part of the Solent a uniquely attractive environment, deserving special treatment.
1.4 Indeed, in England and Wales as a whole, we believe that the West Solent has a quality of landscape, marshy, wooded and hilly, and of seascape, partially enclosed but extensive and oceanic, with magnificent bird life, that makes it a waterway with few equals. Like Milford Haven in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, and the Menai Strait at Anglesey (which is partly an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), it is a unique bit of coast.
2. Pressures on the West Solent: recreation, shipping, fishing, global warming, pollution
2.1 The Solent region is home for over 1million people and is within 2 hour’s travel time for some 20 million. With the increases in economic activity and housing planned for SE England (for example, possibly 120,000 new houses in Hampshire alone in the next 20 years), recreation pressures on the Solent’s shores, waters, viewpoints and other visitor attractions will burgeon. Over the same period the ownership and use of cars is expected to increase substantially. For sailing, the RYA is quoted as foreseeing a doubling of present levels, nationally. Undoubtedly the amount of water-based recreation will grow well beyond what may be seen by some as acceptable limits, whatever steps are taken to control it, short and long term. During the last 20 years moorings in the Solent increased by about 30%, but there are lengthy waiting lists and it is likely that the planning and capacity constraints which currently make it difficult to meet such levels of demand may be seriously challenged.
2.2 In the West Solent, only about 2900 of the 24000 craft on moorings or in marinas in the whole Solent area are found there (350 at Yarmouth, 550 Keyhaven, 1600 Lymington, and 400 Beaulieu)*, but a look at any radar scan will show a notable influx from outside, especially during Cowes Week and at times of other major events. Undoubtedly the pressures mentioned above can impact upon the West Solent’s qualities. There are severe constraints on development through the Local Authority Development Plans and Coastal Management Plans, and the harbour management measures in the Lymingon, Keyhaven and Beaulieu Rivers and greater use of trailer boats will increase noticeably despite a severe shortage of .These totals do not include sailing dinghies. There are, for example, at least 250 in dinghy parks at Keyhaven parking space and ever-growing weekend queues at launch points, as will the huge increase in power-boating, water-skiing, jet-skiing, kite-surfing and other ‘extreme’ sports. The situation could become chaotic in the course of time, the impacts being greatest in terms of congestion, but increasingly in terms of noise and safety on land and water. They will be felt in harbour areas, but more and more on the open water beyond the limits of Harbour Authority and Local Authority jurisdiction, where they can and do now cause disturbance and safety risk. They will also affect wildlife, especially the ‘key risk areas’ listed for monitoring in the Solent European Marine Sites study: vegetation and physical features such as saltmarsh, inter-tidal mudflats and sandflats. There will be cost implications, and the question arises as to whether further recreation management should also be considered outside the Harbour Authority areas.
2.3 In terms of commercial shipping, although there are some 75000 shipping movements in Southampton Water annually, the West Solent with only 3000 of these (plus a small number of naval vessels) is not a busy route, its main use being by the frequent car ferry services from Lymington to Yarmouth. There being no pilotage service available, only a few smaller tankers, container ships and ro-ro vessels pass through the area. The bid by Associated British Ports for Harbour Authority powers in the West Solent might have resulted in an increase, but this was turned down for a number of reasons by the Secretary of State for Transport in 1996. Nevertheless, although incident rates in the Solent as a whole are very low, safety concerns over possible groundings, collisions and oil-spills in the West Solent are still being expressed as a result of a recent report by the Marine Accidents Investigation Board into what was in effect an isolated case.
2.4 The West Solent is a mixed sea fishery, its most significant resource being the inshore shellfishery for native oyster which is carefully regulated and is of international conservation importance. The West Solent’s fishing waters are probably more ‘natural’ than other parts of the Solent, due to less disturbance. The harbours of Keyhaven, Yarmouth and Lymington support about 50 fishing vessels out of a total of some 170 in the Solent as a whole, a total that has declined seriously, although there has probably been an increase in recreational fishing. Information is notably lacking about fisheries in the whole area, ie the ecology, health and exploitation of fish stocks, though it is known that oyster catch rates have declined recently to very low levels. Fisheries legislation is a very complex and contentious matter, but it is clear that the economic future of this local industry is a cause for concern, and that every effort to maintain fish stocks should be supported. This would be considerably helped by a study of the ecological context within which the industry operates, the need for which is becoming essential
2.5 Pressures on the West Solent include those thought likely to result from climate change: rising sea levels, greater frequency of storms, the effect of greater rainfall on river flows, and by changes in temperature affecting marine species but also producing warmer summers for recreation and tourism. Critical lengths of the shoreline are physically protected by various means, but substantial stretches are not. The most immediate effect of these pressures is their impact on features such as Hurst Spit, the salt marshes and, behind them, the sea walls, and the Island’s cliffs. This will result in ‘coastal squeeze’ (eg off Lymington and Keyhaven) , flooding risk, habitat loss, and disturbance to mooring areas, including marinas. The Local Authorities, Environment Agency and English Nature have done much work to monitor change and prepare wide-ranging coastal defence strategies, but Shoreline Management Plans will increasingly require tough decisions with serious financial implications, such as whether to ‘hold the line’ or encourage ‘managed retreat’. It is essential that these plans and others needed in future under the far-reaching Water Framework Directive are closely integrated with land use controls and harbour management measures.
2.6 Pollution levels in air, water and on coastal land in the West Solent are on the whole low, and tidal flushing helps keep this so. Though standards are complicated, controls exercised by the Environment Agency, Local Authorities, Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, are exacting. There have been huge investments by Southern Water in water treatment schemes on the mainland and the Island and great efforts have been made to ensure that the area’s three beaches (Lepe, Colwell and Totland) comply with European bathing water standards. Concern continues, however, about the increasing level of beach litter, about agricultural run-off of into rivers, and about the possible residual effects of tri-butyl-tin anti-fouling paints, now banned for use on small boats. Furthermore, since little is known about the ecology of the open waters, as noted above, the effects of pollution there, if any, is uncertain. The Water Framework Directive is likely to result in some re-thinking of pollution control strategies, and its effect on management of the Solent area can only be beneficial.
2.7 Minerals, oil extraction and dredging might be thought to threaten the West Solent, but these are not current issues. Despite the underlying gravel base, no mineral licences are in force from the Crown Estate (gravel extraction even outside the area might affect the stability of Hurst Spit), and oil prospecting has apparently not revealed reserves that are commercially viable. Dredging is only occasional, and for harbour maintenance rather than for capital purposes. Energy policy, on the other hand, may result in significant developments such as wind turbines visible from the water, and, in due course, possibly the use of tidal flows.
3. Benefits of a comprehensive approach
3.1 This brief review of the West Solent’s character, and the recreational, shipping, fishing, climatic, pollution and other problems that may affect it, suggests that although the amount of water-based activity in the East Solent is undoubtedly greater, the natural resources of the West Solent, particularly its landscape and seascape, being of a higher quality, are more sensitive to adverse change. We believe that by their very nature they need special protection. The question arises as to whether their protection is currently adequate, and, if not, how it could be improved.
3.2 On land, the protective measures amount to local planning policies and controls in line with the National Park and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty designations. These are comprehensive and, despite the occasional failure, are well attuned to protecting the landscape from inappropriate development. They apply down to low water mark, ie the local government boundaries. When supported by positive action through environmental and recreational management, they can to an extent safeguard against unacceptable daily pressures onshore.
3.3 On the water, controls in sea areas around Britain generally have rightly been described as a ‘minefield’. Within the harbour authority areas of Lymington and Yarmouth there are navigational and other measures, exercised through Harbour Authority powers and local byelaws. Such controls apply in a less statutory sense at Beaulieu, and Keyhaven through ownership of the river beds, and at Newtown through the National Trust. Beyond this, where the right of navigation exists but is governed, especially for safety, by statute and codes of practice, other controls tend to be specific, none being clearly focussed on the ever-growing pressures of recreational use. These controls include ones over dredging and disposal of spoil, land claim from the sea, laying of moorings, effluent discharge, and even commercial fishing. Subject to some procedures for consultation, they are exercised under various provisions, including European Directives, by a range of separate organisations. These include government departments (eg Defra and Department of Transport), and organisations such as the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Environment Agency, the Crown Estate (owners of the sea-bed) and the Southern Sea Fisheries Committee.
3.4 Thus there is no marine planning system in the West Solent as comprehensive as that for the mainland and Island, and no formally co-ordinated approach to matters such as the relationship between the environmental ‘carrying capacity’ of sea areas and of the local shore bases from which recreational and other pressures are derived. This is, of course, far from unique to the area, and may not be everyone’s immediate concern. Nevertheless, the sensitivity of the West Solent’s natural resources, the likely future growth of water recreation and other pressures, and the lack of thorough knowledge of its marine ecology, could, despite the ‘precautionary principle’, well reveal long term weaknesses in protection. It remains to be seen to what extent the Government’s commitment to set up a coherent network of marine protected areas and to restore fishing stocks, and the proposed Marine Bill (see section 4 below) will tackle some of these general issues. Meanwhile we think that the case for a close look at the implications for the management of the West Solent is a convincing one.
3.5 Arising from this, and having regard to the main pressures outlined above, we suggest that the following should be considered as general aims for the area:
- There should be two essential purposes in future policy for the West Solent – conservation of its natural and cultural resources, and improvement of the enjoyment of recreation, controlled to sustainable levels;
- Priority should be given to the former of these two purposes where there is any serious conflict between them.
Within these general aims:
- The area’s seascape, coastal landscape, wildlife and archaeological heritage should be conserved and enhanced in a coherent way;
- Opportunities for recreation should be maintained and where possible increased, with the purpose of providing an enjoyable experience for all at a level that is compatible with the landward access arrangements;
- Shipping should remain a minor activity, with enhanced safety, and, if possible, some limit on the size of ships;
- Commercial fishing should be encouraged, to an extent that does not damage biodiversity;
- The extraction of minerals or oil should not be allowed;
- Steps should be taken urgently to gain a better understanding of the marine ecology of the area.
Ideally, implementation of these aims would require an overseeing body that can take a strategic view of the area and its needs, exercising control on such matters where appropriate, can give guidance to organisations responsible for day-to-day control, can monitor progress, and can promote research and education in the qualities of the area. Its role would be broadly similar to that of the National Park Authorities that exist in countryside areas of national importance for both landscape and recreation, though with the addition of powers resembling in some respects those of a Harbour Authority. Initially it might take the form of a partnership of Local Authorities, Harbour Authorities and other main stakeholding interests, constituted in such a way as to be able to make authoritative decisions. If, in due course, the area were to be designated as a Marine National Park, the partnership approach should become more formalised and finite boundaries would need to be set. These might include: in the west a line from the Needles to Hurst Spit, in the east between Lepe and Gurnard adjoining the Port of Southampton Harbour Authority area, and in the north and south mean low water mark, the Harbour limits of Lymington and Yarmouth and the mouth of Newtown Creek. Effective cross-boundary co-ordination with adjoining planning and harbour authorities would be essential.
3.6 If one were to work out a ‘balance sheet’ of the advantages and disadvantages of this, one would find on the ‘plus’ side:
- Social, economic and environmental benefits, due to more attractive recreation, more input to the local economy, and better protection for natural resources
and on the ‘minus’ side:
- Administrative and financial costs, due to a new level of local control and cross-boundary liaison, and the cost thereof, although in the case of existing National Parks the additional cost is in practice met from central funds.
In our view, provided the new arrangements add value and do not duplicate, the advantages will outweigh the disadvantages. We believe that in the long term more comprehensive management of the West Solent will be required in any case and it would be preferable to set this up in a way that meets conservation and recreational needs, rather than aim it specifically at navigation.
3.7 We note from the summaries of Marine National Parks overseas and in Scotland attached to this report that these aims and their implementation, on the sea and under it, would not be out of line with world-wide practice. Much can be learnt from these areas, for example on the involvement of stakeholders. They do however differ considerably in character from the West Solent in location, size, character, administration (which is sometimes draconian and not without conflict), and finance (though this is usually subsidised by central government). The summaries include a brief description of the Chichester Harbour Conservancy which, though not a National Park Authority, is of particular relevance in its harbour management and conservation role to the type of partnership authority that may be required in the West Solent.
4. The implications of the Marine Bill
4.1 The question arises as to how such aims might be affected by the Government’s proposed Marine Bill, due to be published probably in November 2006 after a consultation period. A London conference on the Bill on October 25th, a fascinating event at which two of members of our Council were present, included addresses by Defra officials who described the Bill’s purpose as: to manage the conflicting demands of recreation, aggregates, shipping, energy and fishing, whilst maintaining conservation objectives. The emphasis in the latter was on biodiversity, especially under the water. We were told that the Bill has all-party support and could include:
- Introducing a statutory system for Marine Spatial Planning (MSP);
- Streamlining some of the regulations for development consent (see paragraph 3.3 above);
- Establishing a possible new marine management organisation (MMO) for planning, consenting and advising. (This might be an executive agency, or a non-departmental public body, and would need special funding);
- Establishing a framework for protecting important marine areas, species and habitats (referred to in discussion as a Marine Protection Area, MPA);
- Introducing revised inshore fisheries management measures.
The conference saw this as a fundamental change in such control as there is of sea areas, equivalent to the setting up in 1947 of the post-war town and country planning system on land.
4.2 Little more is known about the detailed contents of the Bill at this stage, but the consultations mentioned above are expected to begin early next year, and will include ‘stakeholder events’. We have already written to Defra putting the case for the Bill to provide for Marine National Parks generally, there was no specific mention of the concept from the conference speakers, although we made the point in the discussion period. We now think that the protection of the West Solent as a Marine National Park in accordance with the aims in paragraph 3.5 above, rather than as a MPA (which seems to be primarily an ecological safeguard), or controlled solely by MSP, should be pursued as soon as possible. By this means the idea could be used to influence the general contents of the Bill as it is being prepared. To await its eventual publication would be to miss a golden opportunity.
4.3 We could not go further than this as effectively by ourselves as would be possible with the help of other organisations, and we think the Solent Forum, of which we are one of the main funding members, might be asked initially to provide a platform for a balanced and authoritative debate to take place. We understand that the Forum may shortly be sponsoring a workshop on the implications of MSP for the whole Solent, and this may be the occasion to introduce the issue, it being important to do so while Defra is still engaged on consultations before publication of the Bill. To expect the Forum to go further and undertake a detailed study, however, would go beyond their current work programme. It might nevertheless be possible, with their help, to initiate an academic research project for this purpose, but to do so would require special funding, for which we would need to find sponsorship. Even if the Bill, as published, did not specifically provide for Marine National Parks, the study would highlight the problems and opportunities of the West Solent and thus provide a base for further consideration of its future.
5. Conclusions: the essential points for action arising from this report
5.1 The need for provision in the Bill for Marine National Parks should continue to be impressed on Defra
5.2 In our opinion the West Solent should, in principle, be designated as a Marine National Park, planned and managed by a partnership of statutory and non-statutory bodies concerned with the area
5.3 In preparation for this we ask the Solent Forum to consider hosting the debate referred to in paragraph 4.3 above and to approach academic institutions in the region, on our behalf, to see whether the related research project can be undertaken. The terms of reference for the project should include defining aims for conservation and management of the area, the boundaries to be adopted, and ways in which it might be administered and funded as a partnership, both in the short and longer term. We should urgently investigate possible sources of funding for the project.
5.4 We should make a suitable press release and inform local MPs, asking for their support
5.5 At an appropriate time we should send copies of this report, for comments, to organisations who might be interested in the idea but are not represented on the Forum’s working party.
In preparing this paper we have made grateful use of information in the following documents: Strategic Guidance for the Solent (Solent Forum, 1997) Marine Consents Guide (Solent Forum, 2002) State of the Solent, Edition 2, 2004 (Solent Forum) Report of Solent Coastal Management Conference, 2004 (Solent Forum) Planning Guide for Boating facilities (RYA and BMF) Conference Papers for Towards a Marine Bill (CMS, 2005) Websites on overseas and Scottish Marine National Parks The legal structure of marine parks (paper by Christian du Saussay, University of Nice).
Report by Professor A.D.G. Smart, CBE