DEFRA study floats options for UK marine planning system

A review of international experience of marine spatial planning conducted for the Environment Department (DEFRA) has come up with the key elements needed for a UK system. Drawing strongly on UK land-use planning practice, it recommends a regional and objective-driven approach. Meanwhile, WWF has drafted a marine Bill to provide a framework for marine spatial planning and protection of environmentally important sites.

Pressure has been mounting for a fundamental overhaul of UK marine environment law. The current framework has been criticised by developers, NGOs and government agencies alike as too complex and inadequate to meet international commitments on nature conservation (ENDS Report 355, pp 51-52 ).

A common element in proposals for reform is a new system of marine spatial planning. The Government has taken its time to come round to the idea, but last year - following a pilot study of a regional conservation framework in the Irish Sea - it announced a "presumption in favour of developing a marine spatial plan" (ENDS Report 353, pp 41-43 ).

In December, DEFRA commissioned research to review international experience to inform the development of a UK planning system. The initial findings have now been published.1The report’s authors conclude that international experience has limited applicability for UK waters. They argue that most systems have been developed solely for nature conservation purposes and do not adequately address use-related objectives.

Any new UK framework will have to balance nature conservation objectives against economic and social goals. What is more, most existing plans apply to marine protected areas where human use is low - in contrast with the heavily used seas around the UK.

Another problem is that marine spatial planning is still relatively young and it is too early to assess how successful plans are and which elements are working.

One lesson that comes through strongly is that educating users about the value of the marine environment and explaining the reasons for restrictions is essential for plans to have a chance of success.

The authors suggest the best model is the UK’s well tested land-use planning framework, many of whose aspects can be directly applied in the marine context. In particular, its hierarchical approach, with lower-level plans feeding into more strategic documents, allows for different degrees of detail - something that is particularly appropriate for marine planning as coastal areas are likely to experience greater pressure and require more management than the deep sea.

Another advantage, they say, is that the system is evidence-led - reducing the risk of legal challenge - and uses scientific surveys and analysis to inform decisions.

The paucity of data on the seas around the UK will make planning a challenge whichever model is adopted. The authors insist that any system "will require major investment by the UK in obtaining better information on the marine environment."

The report puts forward a framework to operate at the regional scale. More focused local-scale plans could be "nested" within these to address specific issues.

The landward boundary for the plans should be the mean high-water mark and they could extend as far as 200 nautical miles out to sea. The lateral boundaries are more tricky to determine. Boundaries corresponding to local administrative areas would marry well with land use planning, but the authors concede that others - for example those used in river basin management planning - may be more appropriate.

Another recommendation is that the Government set up national and regional marine bodies with statutory responsibility for the preparation and implementation of the plans.

Key to the planning process is the establishment of a set of objectives in consultation with interested parties. The plan should then be developed to achieve these goals taking into account the potential conflicts between uses and their impacts on the environment. Planning controls should be evaluated for their effectiveness in meeting the objectives, and for their implications on the sectors concerned.

Once implemented, the plan should be closely monitored and policed and subject to regular review and revision - most existing marine plans last for five to seven years.

Stakeholder involvement is seen as central to the process, both to secure access to information on which to base the plan and because their support is seen as essential to the plan’s success. All of the international examples of marine spatial plans that the authors looked at involved public participation, and terrestrial planning similarly emphasises public involvement.

On a more practical point, many of the tools likely to feed into plans - including integrated coastal zone management, environmental impact and strategic environmental assessment - rely heavily on stakeholder involvement. It is also in line with the general shift towards public participation in environmental decision making.

A conclusion which will disappoint developers is that a system of marine spatial planning will not necessarily result in a more streamlined consents system. The authors point out that they will still have to fulfil the requirements of existing legislation such as the EIA and habitats Directives. However, once the new system is up and running, data may be more available and, at the very least, some indication of where developments could go should be helpful.

The next stage of the project is the preparation and testing of a pilot plan. This will explore the sort of objectives to be included in a plan and give a better idea of the types and sources of data needed. It should also help to understand how to resolve conflicts through planning and which policies and controls are most applicable in the marine context.

The authors suggest testing the pilot on either a proposed offshore renewables development, a new pipeline or fisheries policies. The project is due to be completed by November.

  • WWF has weighed into the debate by drawing up a draft marine Bill.2 Many of the Bill’s proposals would enact the recommendations of last year’s comprehensive review of marine nature conservation (ENDS Report 355, pp 51-52 ). As well as calling for a new system of marine spatial planning, the document proposes the identification of a set of "nationally important features" - be they species, habitats or landscapes.

    The Bill advocates adopting the list of features proposed in last year’s review for this purpose. Users and developers could be ordered to stop activities which threaten these features.

    Nationally important sites containing these features would then be identified. Each site would have its own set of conservation objectives and a management plan. The level of protection would be greater than that afforded to their terrestrial counterparts - sites of special scientific interest - because repairing damage offshore would be more difficult.

    The Bill would place a duty on the Secretary of State to prepare one or more biodiversity strategies to set out how the Government would implement an ecosystem approach to the marine environment and ensure its sustainable development. These would provide the overarching context - and high-level objectives - for marine spatial plans.

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