Marine Bill takes shape

The government has issued a Marine Bill White Paper to flesh out its plans for a new marine planning and licensing system, but the final Bill may not be agreed until 2009.1

The development of a single unified approach to marine areas is a huge task encompassing activities from wind farms to carbon capture and storage (CCS), and undersea pipelines to conservation.

The White Paper envisages a Bill covering five broad areas: planning, licensing, conservation, fisheries and the establishment of a Marine Management Organisation. A sixth issue, coastal management, was included in earlier proposals but is now covered by separate proposals (ENDS Report 378, pp 39-40 ).

Speaking at the White Paper’s launch on 15 March, Environment Secretary David Miliband said the government was committed to introducing the Bill before the next general election, but could offer no firm deadline.

DEFRA originally planned to produce a draft Bill during the 2005/06 parliamentary session. It now hopes to start drafting the Bill in July, a month after the consultation on the White Paper closes. The Bill is unlikely to get a slot in the Queen’s Speech this autumn, which could push its adoption into the 2008/09 session.

The Bill will introduce a UK-wide system of marine planning and streamline existing licensing regimes for marine activities.

  • Planning: Marine plans would have to abide by a UK marine policy statement (MPS) agreed by all government departments. Drawn up within two years of the Bill coming into force, this would set out the objectives marine plans must seek to achieve. The various levels of activity in different areas of UK waters means some areas may need more detailed plans than others.

    The first plans are expected to cover 20-25 years, with revisions at least every six years. Planning bodies would first have to produce draft plans that would be subject to consultation. Statutory consultees could include the environment agencies, local authorities, regional assemblies and Natural England.

    Planning bodies would translate the statement into a series of regional marine plans that take account of local uses and needs.

    The planning process would have to ensure marine plans are integrated with other plans with overlapping geographic coverage. This would happen gradually, as existing plans are revised.

    All decisions made in the marine area would have to be made in accordance with the UK MPS. When taking decisions, public bodies would have to review the MPS and any relevant marine plan to ensure their proposed decision is in accordance with both. Such decisions could be, for example, licensing decisions about developments, enforcement decisions, or the creation of other plans, such as shoreline management plans.

    In England and Northern Ireland, the development of marine plans would be carried out by a new Marine Management Organisation that would be an executive non-departmental public body. In coastal areas of England, new marine planning steering groups would advise the MMO on plan development.

    The Scottish Executive and Welsh Assembly Government are still deciding whether the MMO’s functions will apply to their administrations. Northern Ireland will fall under its direction, but will have its own regional office.

    A fledgling MMO will be formed by merging DEFRA’s marine consents and environment unit, which issues marine environmental licences, with the Marine Fisheries Agency in April to form the Marine and Fisheries Agency. The marine dredging section of the Department of Communities and Local Government will be added soon afterwards. Government functions such as marine conservation and data collection would be added within a year of the Bill’s passage.

  • Licensing: The current licensing system grew up in piecemeal fashion. Firms planning to develop a wind farm, dredge a channel or lay a pipeline need consent from several bodies, which can be time-consuming and expensive.

    DEFRA had considered integrating all licensing into a single system but now plans to keep some licences, perhaps in a revised form. But its aim is that any project would only require a single licence.

    The main plank of the reformed marine licensing regime will be the consolidation of Part 2 of the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 (FEPA) and Part 2 of the Coast Protection Act 1949. The regime would regulate broadly the same activities as the Acts do now and would be administered in England and Northern Ireland by the MMO. These relate to activities involving construction of works, the disposal of substances on or under the seabed, or removal of material from the seabed. It would also cover all forms of marine dredging.

    The future licensing regime for CCS is being explored by the government’s CCS regulatory task force (ENDS Report 381, pp 12-13 ). One option for carbon storage, says the White Paper, would be to amend the FEPA or the Pollution Prevention and Control Act 1999 and/or the Petroleum Act 1998, which "the government expects would already regulate enhanced oil and gas recovery using CO2 and which may be used to regulate decommissioning of oil and gas installations that have been used for CCS". A few further amendments to the reformed marine licensing regime would then be all that would be needed.

    Another option would be to provide in the Marine Bill for secondary legislation to regulate CCS in the marine environment. This would allow the government to modify the way the marine licensing regime would apply to CCS or disapply it altogether and replace it with a bespoke regime.

    Wind farm developers would be able to apply for consent under section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989 that would also grant the appropriate environmental permission instead of needing such consent and a FEPA licence.

    The current licensing system for oil and gas installations would remain unchanged.

    However, the proposals will have to take account of the forthcoming planning reform White Paper. This is expected to establish a separate approval system for major infrastructure projects - a category which could include wind farms of more than 100 megawatts and new ports.

  • Conservation: A network of marine conservation zones (MCZs) would be established around England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The level of protection afforded to each site would depend on the risks faced. Some may simply ban fishing or dredging, while others may prohibit all activities. The zones would be based on features and habitats of national importance rather than more limited EU criteria - a feature that won praise from environmental groups.

    A separate set of European marine sites would be developed to meet the requirements of the wild birds and habitats Directives. The two regimes could create about 30 protected sites by 2020.