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Marine Management Organisation

Volume 533: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Duddridge.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue of great concern to my constituency and many maritime constituencies around our shores. The UK marine area covers an area three and a half times the UK land mass. It is rich in marine life and natural resources, which form the basis of human economic activities estimated to be worth £46 billion in 2005-06. Some of those pose a risk to the integrity of marine ecosystems, with impacts growing because of pressures such as large-scale marine renewable energy developments. Current activities have resulted in a crowded marine area, including licensed developments and areas of high fishing effort. Concerns over the degradation of the marine environment have led to a range of new policies, culminating in legislation and the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009.

The most significant aspect of that Act is the introduction of marine planning: a framework for decisions on marine activities aimed at reducing user conflict and encouraging an “ecosystem-based approach”. Planning, as described in the Act, aims to promote economic activity, as well as to integrate environmental protection into decision making. I have read the Hansard record of the Committee stage of that Bill and know that the then Minister was keen to ensure that the Bill achieved the right balance between sustainable development and environmental protection.

The Marine Management Organisation was created as the main delivery agency for the new planning and licensing regime, but Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee have the main role in the pre-designation of marine protection areas. I have met its chairman and chief executive, who are trying to deliver the aims of their organisation. All the comments I am about to make relate not to their performance in managing the organisation, but rather to the structure of the processes they have inherited.

The key challenge facing the marine planning system that I am experiencing in the port of Falmouth and the Carrick Roads is resolving the inevitable conflicts between policy objectives to ensure the integration of the social, economic and environmental needs of the area. Given the limited amount of time available to me, I will summarise the area briefly. It is the third largest natural harbour in the world; home of the last commercial oyster fishing fleet under sail in Europe; host to a thriving ship repair business; host to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service fleet; home to world-class super-yacht builders Pendennis; and home to a range of marine renewable businesses. It is also a centre of world-class yachting and sailing, including the home base of British Olympic sailor Ben Ainslie. It has a special area of conservation and areas of sites of special scientific interest. Having grown up there, I can testify to the huge improvements that have been made to the quality of water and the natural environment, which all Falmouthians very much value.

All concerned with the new marine planning process acknowledge the challenges involved. Putting 25% of England’s marine environment under “protection” in a relatively short time, given the severely resource-constrained situation the Government find themselves in, is deeply concerning. The uncertainties in planning decisions as a result of knowledge gaps, and sometimes competing scientific evidence is of particular concern. Effective marine management requires sound evidence and monitoring. A Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science report in 2010 entitled “Marine Survey Needs to Underpin Defra Policy” identifies a shortage of data necessary for marine planning. It also states that much of the evidence to be used in designation is subject to a medium or low level of confidence.

About 10% of the UK continental shelf is currently mapped in detail by survey or observation. To fill gaps, projects such as UKSeaMap produce broad-scale predictive habitat maps based on best available data, but confidence in some of the designations is as low as 20%. Direct mapping is expensive: the cost is estimated to be £210 million over seven years to map the rest of the UK’s regional seas to scales relevant to marine habitats, and there are limited funds to undertake such surveys.

Given the emphasis on evidence-based policy needing to be based on the best possible science, I want the Minister to consider the following recommendations about the guidance the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs gives to the MMO, which has the job of licensing activity in the marine environment, such as dredging, as well as establishing a network of marine protected areas, include marine conservation zones and reference sites. To undertake that work, the MMO is using the DEFRA-produced “A description of the marine planning system for England”. That is quite a general document and it would be relatively straightforward for the Minister to issue additional guidance to bring in the changes I recommend, which would not need any primary legislation.

The additional guidance I want the Minister to consider stems from the need to access the broadest and best possible evidence base for appropriate decisions to be taken. As the Minister is aware, Natural England and the JNCC are the Government’s statutory nature conservation advisers in the English and UK offshore marine area, yet there is a wealth of knowledge in coastal communities, academic institutions around the UK and even internationally that I believe should be used in addition to the expertise of those organisations. Marine science is a fast-growing academic discipline and the MMO should be enabled to extend the range of organisations and people that can provide scientific evidence to enable its independent decision making. The quality of evidence should be paramount, whether or not it comes from Natural England or the JNCC. Of course, any organisation or person would have to demonstrate their ability to carry out the task and their work should be open to scrutiny and challenge. I believe their evidence should be considered on a level playing field and on equal terms with that of Natural England and the JNCC.

I also want the Minister to consider extending the limited appeals system. Generally speaking, the terrestrial planning system does not extend below the low tide mark, so the normal planning appeals process does not apply. The 2009 Act does not appear to set out an equivalent appeals process for planning decisions, although it does allow for one to be set out by regulations under section 37 for appeals against licensing decisions. I note the Department of Energy and Climate Change and DEFRA’s recent consultation on licensing under part 4, including appeals on decisions.

The marine planning system for England March 2011 document states in paragraph 5.61 that appeals against the refusal of terrestrial planning permission and inquiries are dealt with by the Planning Inspectorate and it goes on to say that the Planning Inspectorate could be involved in independent investigations within the marine planning system. If an independent investigation is required, an investigator will be appointed to provide advice and recommendations on how issues may be resolved and plans may be improved. The final format that the investigation will take is decided by the Secretary of State on the advice of the MMO. It is essential that these powers should be made available in the predetermination stage of marine protection designations as well as in relation to decisions the MMO will make post-designation in the management of marine protected areas.

The potential economic and social impact of designation of marine protected areas on coastal communities is so significant that it demands an appropriate appeals process. Decisions of such magnitude would not be made on the land without an appropriate appeals process. With the recent publication of the list of potential sites, there has been a huge outcry in my constituency at the potential designation of part of the Fal estuary as a marine protected area and a reference site.

Falmouth town council is united in strongly opposing the plans, stating that

“the proposal…threatens 350 years of history and shipping power in this port”.

The impact of the designation upon the recreational use of the Fal estuary has also aroused anger. Referring to the effect of the designation on a long and proud history of sailing boat racing on the Fal, Falmouth race officer Walter Amos has stated:

“The proposal would put an end to 150 years of tradition, cause enormous resentment, and have considerable economic consequences.”

My hon. Friend is making a strong case, particularly regarding reference sites. The Minister and I served our time on the Bill that became the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, and what my hon. Friend says is absolutely right: what we need in relation to reference sites is consultation and the opportunity for appeals, as with my constituency and the Cape Bank reference site. Low-impact fishing takes place there at the moment, but that would be stopped, with the unintended consequence of discouraging the very type of fishing that I should have thought the Act was intended to protect.

I thank my hon. Friend for that very helpful intervention.

Richard Gates, the Falmouth town centre manager, has added his voice to the chorus of local residents opposing the plans, commenting:

“We live in a beautiful part of the country and certainly are very environmentally aware but this cannot be at the detriment of people’s livelihoods and leisure when many people are working so hard to develop the area”.

I am sure that Falmouth and, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) has pointed out, other parts of Cornwall are not the only coastal communities that feel that the current recommended sites for marine protected areas are inappropriate because they fail to meet the fundamental aim of creating areas that strike the right balance between sustainable economic, social and environmental protection.

My hon. Friend’s description of her beautiful constituency could be substituted for mine, with Aldeburgh and the River Alde. Is it not the case that constituents feel that designations are being slapped on top of existing special protection areas simply because the data are available, rather than other parts of the coast being sought that could easily fulfil the criteria for marine conservation zones?

I am very grateful for those comments. My hon. Friend anticipates a point that I was going to make but now do not need to make. I think that issue is a real problem.

Perhaps it is not surprising that this has happened because the lead agencies tasked with drawing up the list of potential sites, the JNCC and Natural England, have as their primary purpose environmental protection and conservation. What is not part of their remit is what the Act clearly set out to achieve—balancing the social, economic and environmental needs of communities.

I appreciate that the Minister has inherited the current process and would not have designed one that led to the current situation, where there is so much genuine outrage and concern, but that is where we are today. It is a matter of great importance to coastal communities that measures are urgently taken to enable greater use of all the available evidence base by decision makers, rather than their relying almost entirely on Natural England and the JNCC. An open, transparent appeals process for both pre and post-designation decision making needs to be established urgently.

Given that the deadline for the establishment of the marine protected areas sites is 2012 and that the sites are being consulted on as we speak, I hope the Minister can reassure me that he will consider these recommendations so that the implementation of the very worthy aims of the Act command the respect of coastal communities. It is vital that people who might be adversely affected by the implementation of the Act are thoroughly involved, which they have not been so far. Making the new planning system work depends on building a consensus and support that can be achieved only if all concerned have confidence in the system that is used to reach conclusions. Sadly, that is very much missing at the moment. Politicians are elected to use their judgment and are democratically accountable. I hope that the Minister can reassure us tonight that he will exercise his judgment and democratic accountability to ensure that there is a common-sense approach to marine planning.

I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing the debate and thank her for allowing me to participate in it. I am well aware that the setting up of the MMO in the previous Parliament was a contentious issue that caused frustration in my constituency.

My predecessor fought valiantly to convince her own Labour Front-Bench team in DEFRA that the MMO should be located in the south-west. After all, the peninsula has 30% of the UK’s coastline and Plymouth is a global player with the Royal Navy, the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Plymouth university, the Marine Biological Association, the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science and the National Marine Aquarium all based in my Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport constituency. Plymouth is a fishing port as well. I suspect that the decision to locate the MMO in Newcastle was a political one, aimed at satisfying Labour Members of Parliament in the north. With only three Labour Members of Parliament in Devon and Cornwall by 2005, I am afraid my predecessor’s views were rather disregarded.

I suspect that things have gone too far and that it would be inappropriate to move the MMO to Plymouth or the south-west, especially in the present financial climate when we have to be very careful with taxpayers’ money. We need to ensure that money is spent wisely. However, will my hon. Friend the Minister consider whether a small satellite office might be set up in Plymouth, or if some funding could be given to the university to host a few officials who could liaise with the MMO and make sure that the south-west is well represented?

In the short time available to me, I want to welcome the MMO’s commitment to evidence-based and transparent decision making. I welcome the proposals to develop Falmouth port, as this will deliver a cluster approach to economic development in the south-west. Like Plymouth, it is of regional economic significance and could potentially be a key test of the MMO’s commitment to sustainable development, but I seek an assurance from the Minister that the MMO will work with its statutory conservation advisers to scrutinise the quality of evidence and ensure that robust processes are in place.

I was concerned to see a recent independent review of Natural England’s quality assurance processes that outlined a number of significant issues in relation to advice on the marine environment. The review contained a range of recommendations so that Natural England is brought into line with recognised good practice. Will the Minister assure the House that Natural England is committed to working with the MMO to provide high quality advice that is subject to independent peer review and scrutiny?

The way we manage our seas is becoming increasingly important as they become a barometer for global warming. If they want to carry all interested parties and users of the seas with them, Ministers will need to ensure that there is a significant amount of public consultation.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing the debate on such an important issue for her constituents. I thank other hon. Members for their contributions.

The Marine Management Organisation was created just 18 months ago, with cross-party support. As a non-departmental public body, it carries out its function with technical expertise, impartiality and transparency, and at arm’s length from Ministers, but it is accountable to both Ministers and Parliament. At the outset, I pay tribute to the MMO and to its staff. Its remit is very diverse. It continues to mature and is tackling a range of challenging issues. It manages our fisheries; it is delivering marine planning; it is working with others to create and manage a network of marine protected areas and to carry out marine licensing. Within its broad remit, the MMO is required to manage its activities with the objective of making a contribution to sustainable development, in a consistent and co-ordinated manner and taking account of all relevant facts and matters.

The MMO’s decisions should be impartial and based on best available evidence, taking into account the potential benefits and anticipated adverse impacts. It also needs to ensure that its decisions comply with statutory requirements under UK and EU legislation and are consistent with our international obligations. All that sounds straightforward in theory, but the decisions that the MMO has to make, whether about opening and closing fisheries, licensing construction or applications to the European fisheries fund have real-world impacts and directly affect people’s livelihoods, something that I believe the MMO is acutely aware of. The MMO will never be able to please all the people all the time, and decisions will sometimes adversely affect some more than others, but for that reason the MMO stresses the importance of transparency and impartiality. The MMO has been exemplary in ensuring that the information it bases its decisions on is publicly available, and it is helpful for people to be able to see how it makes its decisions, particularly when they are relatively controversial.

One cornerstone of the 2009 Act was to introduce a streamlined licensing system and marine planning in order to contribute to the sustainable development of our seas. That streamlined licensing system was introduced in April, the first marine plans will be in place in 2013 and, to guide the MMO, DEFRA has produced statutory guidance on sustainable development. It refers to the UK marine policy statement, which was adopted in March as the framework for planning and decision making in the marine environment in order to ensure a consistent approach throughout the UK and to contribute to sustainable development.

At the same time, DEFRA produced the description for the marine planning process in England so that the MMO could take it forward and produce subsequent guidance on how marine planning will work, and it is an absolute priority of this Government to ensure that, when we view our seas, we do so holistically. For too long we have looked down the silos of fisheries, conservation or marine licensing, but now, at last, we are developing the means to look at the marine environment as a whole. That is long overdue, and it will assist the constituents of my hon. Friends and others, who at the moment have to follow an entirely application-led process. Marine planning, like terrestrial planning, will be a great advantage to them.

The hon. Gentleman refers to involvement with other parts of the United Kingdom, and there is an impact on the devolved Administrations of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, because they have responsibility for fishing, so can he confirm that he will consult the devolved Administrations to ensure that there is a uniform approach to fishing?

I make it my business to confer with my devolved colleagues regularly, and I will do so on Thursday and Friday in Luxembourg and with the Northern Ireland Minister and other devolved Ministers in Newcastle in the very near future. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I make it my business to ensure that we, as a UK group of Ministers, talk together and recognise that we cannot look at our seas just in terms of the countries that make up the United Kingdom; we have to look at them holistically.

My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth mentioned the appeals process, and one important feature of the new licensing system is the introduction of just such a process. An applicant for a marine licence will be able to appeal against a decision made by the licensing authority on their application. That includes a decision not to grant a licence, conditions attached to a licence or the length of a licence, and the Planning Inspectorate—PINS—will manage and decide appeals against licensing decisions made by the licensing authority.

We have closely aligned our processes to those for terrestrial planning appeals, as we expect there to be benefits in developing a system that is consistent with current practice. For example, a familiar process should be easier for PINS to implement and for appellants to understand and follow.

Similarly, for marine planning, as my hon. Friend said, there will be the option for independent investigations of a marine plan, and PINS will carry out those, too. Should an independent investigation be needed, it will take place after the consultation on a proposed marine plan and before adoption by the Secretary of State.

Clarity, transparency and the involvement of as many stakeholders and communities as possible are important in marine planning and licensing. Similarly, although the MMO relies on advice from Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee as statutory consultees when making many of its decisions, it none the less draws on a wider evidence base in delivering its work. Naturally, this includes research commissioned by DEFRA and carried out by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and many other expert organisations, as well as studies commissioned directly by the MMO.

Indeed, the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) is a well-known international hub of expertise in marine science, and precisely those resources are available to and used by the MMO for the evidence that it needs. It is essential that it should be able to have access to the best information available, including information submitted during public consultations. I can give my hon. Friends the absolute assurance that, in our reviews of the performance of the MMO, we will ensure that it is taking all the best evidence available and is not only listening to the statutory conservation bodies but registering a serious attempt to widen its reach in terms of the advice it receives.

My hon. Friend may also wish for some clarification of the marine conservation zone process. The identification of MCZs has been stakeholder-led operation from the outset, managed by the statutory nature conservation bodies, Natural England and the JNCC. The statutory nature conservation bodies established four regional MCZ projects—Balanced Seas, Finding Sanctuary, Net Gain and the Irish sea conservation zones—and these provided advice about which MCZs should be brought forward. I can tell hon. Members, if they have not witnessed it, that it has been a tortuous process with many hours of work, and it has brought forward some suggestions at this stage.

Each project established stakeholder groups made up of a variety of key interested parties in their regions to examine the evidence and put forward site recommendations and associated impact assessments. To that end, it is the stakeholders who have been responsible for developing the recommendations on location, conservation objectives and management measures options of any MCZs in their region, and they have had a real opportunity to shape and influence the decisions that the Government will make.

On 8 September, the regional MCZ projects submitted their final MCZ recommendations to the independent Science Advisory Panel and the statutory nature conservation bodies for review. In total, there are 127 recommended MCZ sites. Across all four projects, over 2,500 interviews were conducted with stakeholders, and detailed discussions took place during the course of 155 stakeholder meetings. Over 1 million individuals’ interests have been represented through the MCZ stakeholder groups. Once the advice from the panel and the statutory nature conservation bodies is received, Ministers—I stress, Ministers themselves—will examine all the evidence before deciding which sites to put forward for public consultation. The public consultation will be yet another opportunity for stakeholders to present their views on proposals and for any further new evidence to be submitted. Only after all this evidence has been collated and reviewed will Ministers designate MCZs.

I conclude by reiterating the scale of the challenge facing the MMO and Ministers as we seek to grapple with exceedingly complex issues that, as my hon. Friends have eloquently noted, stir a great deal of interest and passion around coastal Britain. I look forward to continuing that vigorous discussion as we move forward through the process of designating marine conservation zones and managing our vital marine resources.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.