Skip to main content

Ports (Regulation)

Volume 464: debated on Tuesday 9 October 2007

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate the activities which can be undertaken in UK ports; to place certain duties on harbour authorities; and for connected purposes.

Colleagues will know that this is certainly a complex issue. I have raised it in the House on many occasions, but it has become increasingly clear that UK regulations that comply with the habitats directive need to be put in place. Under such regulations, the implications—and, if necessary, the public-interest arguments—of the firth of Forth scheme and similar proposals could be fully considered.

The seas around the UK currently have no legal protection. That means that some of Scotland’s most precious wildlife, from sea birds to seahorses, is at risk from human impacts such as shipping, marine developments, fishing and pollution. Currently, 85 different pieces of legislation govern activities in Scotland’s seas. That legislation needs to be consolidated and brought up to date if we are to protect our marine wildlife and our coastal communities.

In my constituency, the biggest threat at present is the proposal to allow ship-to-ship oil transfers in the firth of Forth, and my Bill is designed to address the lack of any appropriate regulation or framework. At present, ship-to-ship oil transfers can be carried out within a harbour authority area if that harbour authority has in place an approved oil spill contingency plan that covers such activities. The underlying principle is that ship-to-ship transfers in harbour authority areas should take place only where there is a fully worked-up oil spill contingency plan, with trained personnel—and the necessary equipment for responding to a spill—close at hand.

Many hon. Members will know that my constituency of East Lothian has one of the finest coastlines in the UK. It attracts 2.5 million visitors every year, with all the obvious advantages for local communities, including the employment of up to 3,500 people in the tourist industry. The coastline stretches from Cockburnspath north to Musselburgh, and its beauty is valued by locals and visitors alike. The coastline also has nine designated bathing waters from Seton Sands down to Thornton loch, and anyone travelling on the east coast main line will see its breathtaking beauty at first hand.

The East Lothian coastline is one of outstanding natural heritage. Ninety per cent. of the coastline is classified as a Forth special protection area. Over the recess, I have collated evidence from across the constituency of the determination of my constituents to oppose the proposal. I have a petition with hundreds of signatures; I have thousands of postcards that constituents have signed and returned confirming that they wish me to oppose the proposal, which would see 7.8 million tonnes of crude oil transferred in the firth of Forth.

My constituents and I do not wish to consider the consequences of an oil spill in our beautiful waters, whether there are contingency plans in place or not. In recent years, public money has delivered major improvements to the coastline and beaches of East Lothian, and that investment should never be put at risk. Hon. Members might ask whether there is a genuine risk from the proposal for ship-to-ship transfer of oil. The answer is absolutely yes. The potential hazards include oil spills, vessel collision, fire and explosion, environmental emissions, damage to coastal and sea bed habitats, damage to tourism and damage to fishing. It is an accident waiting to happen. I, for one, do not want to trust and hope that, if such an oil spill were to occur in the firth of Forth, the contingency plans would preserve the integrity of the coastline and nature conservation sites. I am introducing this ten-minute Bill because I remain of the view that the current legislation has the balance right between protecting the environment and allowing the port authorities to facilitate commercial and economic activity.

There is some provision to regulate and, if necessary, prevent ship-to-ship transfers in the Forth. Those functions are vested in Forth Ports, which has power under byelaws enacted under local legislation to regulate whether vessels can anchor to transfer cargo. As a competent port authority under the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994, Forth Ports must have regard to the requirements of the habitats directive. The amendments to the habitats regulations in Scotland are very good, and adequate to deal with the European wildlife sites dimension of projects in the Forth. They were passed with all-party support in the Scottish Parliament. The detailed process for consent to plans and projects set out by the current regulations does not deal specifically with, or apply to, oil transfers, however. Unlike other types of port development, programmes of ship-to-ship transfers are not subject to environmental impact assessment regulations either in Scotland or in the rest of the UK, regardless of their frequency or volume.

The missing link in the legislative framework is a sensible set of UK regulations controlling ship-to-ship transfers in UK waters. The absence of clear national consenting mechanisms for marine plans or projects and for ship-to-ship cargo transfers in particular has led the firth of Forth to a highly unsatisfactory default position. The consent for a major oil handling project must be determined by the board of directors of a public limited company, the share price of which seems inevitably to be affected by that decision. That seems an invidious position for Forth Ports plc. Meanwhile, UK and Scottish Ministers have no power of veto. Ship-to-ship transfer as an activity slips through the net and the public are denied a voice.

No wonder there exists a widely and strongly held perception of a conflict of interest on the part of statutory harbour authorities when they are also by nature public limited companies with duties to their shareholders. Surely this is at odds with the need for impartial regulation and with the spirit, if not the letter, of the habitats regulations.

In East Lothian, for instance, there is a perception of a reluctance on the part of the harbour authority to address the legitimate concerns of local communities and others, and that has resulted in an unfortunate amount of mistrust and ill feeling. The mistrust is exacerbated by the difficulty experienced by members of the public in gaining access to environmental information gathered by the harbour authority. This fuels accusations of secrecy and questions the impartiality of the harbour authority. How can a body that may benefit financially from granting consent be seen to regulate the activity transparently and without prejudice? These issues could be addressed by incorporating into new regulations for ship-to-ship transfers a clear process to be followed by harbour authorities. The authority to consider that falls wholly within Westminster.

The Bill seeks, by regulating the activities that can be undertaken in UK ports, the provision for transfers to be prohibited or consented to only subject to strict conditions. Regulation of the activities that can be undertaken in UK ports under the Bill should avoid the potential conflicts of interest for bodies that currently act both as the competent authorities and the financial beneficiaries of such transfers. The Bill would ensure that harbour authorities are more clearly accountable to the public for their environmental responsibilities and in carrying out their statutory functions. The decision-making process in relation to ports’ development is complex and often less than transparent. There must be scope for simplification and regulation in particular if the habitats directive does not fully meet the requirement to protect our waters from the impact of such proposals.

A common approach from the Government and the devolved Administration to work with the industry and other interested parties to simplify and rationalise the procedures is now required. Successive Governments have sought to separate regulation from those with a commercial interest in consents. For example, the water industry is regulated by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the forestry industry by the Forestry Commission, and town and country planning proposals in which the local planning authority stands to benefit may be called in by Ministers.

The Bill seeks to ensure that clear habitats directive compliant procedures are followed by harbour authorities in consenting to ship-to-ship proposals and would give call-in power to Ministers to avoid apparent conflicts of interests.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Anne Moffat, Jim Sheridan, Mr. Jim McGovern, Mr. David Hamilton, Mr. John MacDougall, Mr. David Anderson, Mark Lazarowicz, Mr. Jim Devine, Dr. Gavin Strang and Nigel Griffiths.

Ports (regulation)

Anne Moffat accordingly presented a Bill to regulate the activities which can be undertaken in UK ports; to place certain duties on harbour authorities; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 154].