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Marine Licensing

Volume 671: debated on Wednesday 12 February 2020

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

I am delighted to bring to the House this debate to consider the process for the consultation on marine licensing applications carried out by the Marine Management Organisation on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The process has come to my attention in recent years because the way in which it works has led to widespread dismay among my local fishing communities. They have been left out of the consultation process when it comes to considering important decisions that impact on their livelihoods.

The Cornish fishing industry has recently been highlighted on a national scale, not only in the British Academy of Film and Television Arts award-winning short film “Bait”, much of which was filmed in St Austell bay and which stars local Cornishman Ed Rowe, but in the excellent BBC series “Cornwall: This Fishing Life”. The series has highlighted, and brought to national prominence as never before, the highs and lows of the Cornish fishing communities and the tremendous risks involved in one of the most dangerous professions. Of the six episodes that were shown, I would have to say—although I may well be biased—that the first was the best, because it highlighted the thriving harbour of Mevagissey in my mid-Cornwall constituency and the fishermen who fish out of that port, often in under- 10 metre boats, in all weathers and at all times of the year.

Let me provide some important background information on this jewel in the crown of fishing in Cornwall. Mevagissey is the second busiest and fastest-growing fishing port in Cornwall. Mevagissey harbour is home to a fleet of 62 registered fishing vessels and employs 94 full-time fishermen and dozens more who support the fishing industry. Some 75% of the fleet work very close to or within 500 metres of the shore at some point during the year, and many work exclusively close to the shore. An average year sees around £2.5 million-worth of fish landed into Mevagissey. I believe I can say with some accuracy that somewhere in the region of £1 million- worth of that fish is caught within 500 metres of the shore.

The primary fishing industry aside, Mevagissey harbour relies heavily on associated fishing dues and revenues, but it also attracts 800,000 tourists every year, largely because it is a living, thriving fishing port. As Members can imagine, any issue that would impact on the lifeblood of Mevagissey without consultation with the fishermen would be cause for much consternation in the community.

That brings me to the marine licensing consultation process, as carried out by the MMO, and specifically to decisions that were recently taken about mussel farms. Mussel farms, for colleagues who may not know, are made by intertwining heavy rope with large floats in areas of coastal water. Mussels are attracted to the ropes and grow off them, and can then be harvested.

I have nothing at all against mussel farms; in fact, I am a huge fan of that growing sector. Sea farming is a sustainable way to grow and cultivate shellfish, and the mussels that are farmed from St Austell bay are, of course, the finest mussels in the country. However, naturally, the deployment of mussel farms, which can cover vast areas of the sea, can hinder more traditional fishing activities from taking place in that area. So when a large mussel farm situated in St Austell bay, in an important area for the Mevagissey inshore fishing fleet, appeared—from their point of view—out of the blue, members of the local fishing community were understandably vexed. The Mevagissey Fishermen’s Association contacted the MMO and asked what had gone on.

It turned out that no individual or organisation in Mevagissey had been consulted by the MMO when considering the application for a new mussel farm—not the Mevagissey parish council, the harbour trustees or Mevagissey fishermen, either through their association or individually. Yet fishermen are constantly receiving information from the MMO, so their contact details would have been readily available, and consulting them would not have required a massive time or resource commitment.

It turns out that the MMO did consult some groups—specifically, the Royal Fowey Yacht Club. The club replied that the original location for the mussel farm would have had an adverse effect on recreational boating and sailing, and that led to the farm’s being moved to a place where it became a hindrance to fishermen. I place it on the record that I have nothing against the Royal Fowey Yacht Club. It is a fine establishment, which can be traced as far back as 1880, and whose patron is no other than the Duke of Cornwall. I absolutely respect the club’s right to be consulted on the application and to raise its concerns regarding the positioning of the new mussel farm.

The MMO does not have a great track record on consultation. Its recent proposals for the catch app have not gone down particularly well with fishermen from Padstow. I ask my hon. Friend to consider, when he makes his approach to the Minister, whether we could look at the catch app and see whether any alternatives to that could better serve many of our fishermen in Cornwall.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for raising that point. He makes a very good point about the wider concern in the fishing industry about the lack of consultation that often goes on with the MMO. The specific point that he raises regarding the catch app has been raised by many in the fishing industry in Cornwall, and I hope that the Minister will look at it again.

The MMO was right to consult the yacht club. However, the Mevagissey fishermen, who have a legitimate expectation to be able to fish in the area where the new mussel farm was constructed, where they have fished for generations, should also have been consulted, and it was wrong for the MMO not to consult the local fishermen. The MMO did not follow their duty to act fairly when considering the application, by not informing the most affected stakeholders, who make their living in the waters in question.

The fishermen brought this matter to my attention, and on appraising the consultation process for marine licensing, I have found it to be out-of-date and not fit for purpose. I have subsequently been in prolonged correspondence with the MMO, with DEFRA and with previous ministerial colleagues, to seek to reform the process and ensure that local fishermen are an integral part of the decision making process.

I believe that there is room to improve the MMO’s consultation process to make it more robust and much more like that for planning applications. Maritime licences can, after all, have an impact on their surroundings just as much as buildings on land can have following a planning application, but at the moment there does not seem to be the same level of structure or clear consultation with statutory consultees for MMO licences as there is for planning applications.

The MMO originally replied that it would consider including local parish councils among the statutory consultees for fishing communities. Again, that would be similar to the process followed for planning applications. Parish councils such as Mevagissey’s are integral parts of their community, are well connected with the local fishing community and harbour, and would, in my mind, be natural consultees. However, that was not followed up, as it was apparently considered to involve too much additional work for the MMO. I would challenge that. Particularly in areas such as Cornwall, which has a unitary council and no district councils, parish councils play an increasingly important role in representing their communities. It surely cannot be beyond the MMO’s ability to consult directly with them.

If, however, the MMO is not prepared to consult parish councils, a fair compromise would be to transfer responsibility in the consultation process for checking with local bodies such as fishermen’s associations from the MMO to the local authority, which is already a statutory consultee. This would accomplish the dual outcomes of taking pressure off the MMO and allowing the local authority, which would presumably have a greater knowledge base, to speak to the right people. If that does not happen, the MMO, in conjunction with the local inshore fisheries conservation authorities, should draw up an up-to-date list of all fishermen’s associations and make them integrated statutory consultees for every licensing application.

There is also scope—I ask the Minister to look at this—for modernising the public notice element of the process, which stipulates only that a small and sparsely worded notice be published in a local newspaper. As we are all aware, the readership of local newspapers is falling as more and more people obtain their news online. This method of giving notice of applications seems outdated. The process could be brought up to date; applications could be circulated online, alongside the existing notice, as part of the MMO’s regular communication with fishing communities. Fishermen also tell me that the MMO’s website is difficult to navigate; even when they know that there is a live licensing application, it is difficult to find it on the website.

In conclusion, I hope I have shown that the MMO licensing consultation needs to be reviewed and significantly changed. The MMO needs to change the process to ensure that groups such as fishermen and parish councils are aware of licensing applications and are consulted on them. It needs to modernise the way it notifies the public about applications, and to improve its website, so that live applications can be easily found.

I hope the Minister will take on board the points I have raised on behalf of my local fishermen. I look forward to going back to Mevagissey and giving the fishermen the good news that we in this place have listened to their concerns and that the system will be reviewed and changed, so that in future, their views are sought on decisions that directly affect their livelihoods.

First, I think this is the first time that I have had the honour of speaking while you are in the Chair, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure.

Secondly, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on securing this debate. He is always passionate about his constituency, and is constantly standing up for his community. I agree that the short film, “Bait”, which I have seen, is an invaluable slice of that iconic life in his part of the world. It is really worth seeing.

Let me take this opportunity to recognise the importance of marine licensing and planning, which are vital tools in managing the use of our marine space and the competing demands placed on it. My hon. Friend’s debate is timely, with the launch of the Marine Management Organisation’s consultation on four new marine plans in January. The delivery of the plans is a key aspect of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. Marine plans inform and guide marine users and regulators across England. The plans will manage the sustainable development of marine industries, such as wind farms and fishing, alongside the need to conserve and protect marine species and habitats. Economic growth will be supported in a way that benefits society while respecting the needs of local communities and protecting the marine environment.

Marine planning enables the increasing and, at times, competing demands for the use of our marine area to be balanced and managed in an integrated way. The Government are committed to ensuring that there is a full set of marine plans in place by 2021, so that we meet the commitment set out in our 25-year environment plan. The plans will be a significant milestone for the Government in ensuring the long-term sustainable development of our seas. Marine development is central to the Government’s ambition. Indeed, everyone seems to want a piece of the blue space right now, so we will keep under review how our approach to marine planning might need to evolve to meet future challenges. I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments because this space will definitely be growing and evolving.

Interested parties have been, and will continue to be, engaged in the process, and they will have an opportunity to influence how their marine environment is managed. That is very important. The recent marine plans consultation covers my hon. Friend’s constituency of St Austell and Newquay, where the local sea area is recognised to be vital. The draft south-west inshore plan, which covers a total of approximately 16,000 sq km of sea—a big space—will introduce a strategic approach to inform where activities might take place. The MMO has undertaken extensive public engagement in the development of this plan to ensure that it captures local priorities.

The consultation closes on 6 April, and I have asked the MMO as a matter of urgency to ensure that it writes to the relevant coastal MPs to highlight the importance of contributing to the consultation, just in case they have not done so already—or, indeed, to forward it to people that they think ought to be involved. Likewise, I encourage any body or organisation that has an interest in the local sea to respond to the consultation. The importance of stakeholder engagement in this process cannot be overstated, which is why a statement of public participation is in place for these plans, setting out how and when we will engage with stakeholders during the marine planning process. When these plans are adopted, someone applying for a licence or approval will need to show how they have considered the plan, so this will be an important step in the future of marine planning.

Although marine plans play an important strategic role, the delivery of sustainable development in our seas is underpinned by our marine licensing system. Marine licensing covers a diverse range of activities—from depositing a marker on the seabed, through to significant infrastructure developments. Introduced under the Marine and Coastal Access Act, marine licensing is a process by which those seeking to undertake certain activities in the marine environment are required to apply for a licence. This is to ensure that we can promote the economic and social benefits of the marine environment while minimising the adverse effects on the environment, human health and other users of the sea. Under the Act, in England we have delegated the responsibility for implementing marine licensing to the MMO, and our approach to marine licensing is based on evidence-based decision making through which human activities in the marine area are regulated.

My hon. Friend raised some serious concerns about the licensing regime, and he made no bones about it. Let me highlight the recent improvements made to the marine licensing system. Only last year, the Government exempted certain activities from the licensing process to support those who realise environmental benefit—for example, to enable divers to remove marine litter from a marine area without the need to apply for a marine licence. I know that my hon. Friend has a particular interest in this area. This is just one of many steps that we are taking to ensure that plastic waste does not pollute the ocean. Between 4.8 million and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter the global ocean every year; it is absolutely shocking. That is why we have to focus on tackling this flow, and hopefully this is one measure that will help. In the resources and waste strategy for England, we set out how we will minimise waste, promote resource efficiency and move towards a more circular economy.

The MMO has focused its efforts on improving the public consultation process, including making the process of submitting representations via the online system more user-friendly. This has been to the benefit of parish councils and others who have used the system. Where parish councils or any other party have expressed a desire to be included in a specific consultation, the MMO can facilitate that when it is practicable to do so. The MMO has also designated area liaison leads for coastal development to attend coastal groups and forums at a regional level around the country. Through this engagement activity, the MMO seeks to raise awareness and understanding of the marine licensing process. It is really important that people understand how it works and how they can input into it. I take many of my hon. Friend’s points about how that might potentially be improved.

The Government have a commitment in the 25-year environment plan to ensure that all local authorities with a coastal interest are signed up to the coastal concordat by 2021. The coastal concordat is designed to remove red tape and streamline the consenting process for both regulators and applicants. This applies to the consenting of coastal developments in England. The MMO welcomes feedback on how to improve this service, and it will always seek to implement this where practicable.

In 2017-18, the MMO determined more than 800 applications on variations to licences—in 94% of cases, within a 13-week framework. I specifically asked for these figures prior to this debate because I wanted to know exactly what it is dealing with—and it is pretty significant. The MMO always strives to improve its service. On hearing my hon. Friend’s concerns relating to difficulties with the Mevagissey Fishermen’s Protection Association’s experiences of the consultation, I will urge it to do more in this area, including the website improvements that he mentioned.

I will now focus on the marine licence consultation for the mussel farm in Mevagissey bay. I do love a mussel, with a bit of white wine cream—lovely—and a bit of onion, chopped: very nice. My hon. Friend is right to bring to our attention the concerns of the Mevagissey Fishermen’s Protection Association on the marine licence consultation for a mussel farm in Mevagissey bay. I thank him, the Mevagissey Fishermen’s Protection Association and the MMO for their efforts to find an acceptable way forward. It is important that individuals can make their voices heard on decisions that may affect them. I note the concerns of the association and others on how the consultation for the marine licence application was conducted. Those concerns focus on the potential impact on the Mevagissey fishermen and other users of the bay, and the perceived lack of consultation regarding the licence application.

I understand that subsequently the MMO has worked with the Mevagissey Fishermen’s Protection Association to try to resolve this and that the MMO had initially explained that its consultation process gave the fishing industry the opportunity to comment through the inshore fisheries and conservation authority or through public representation. Following further correspondence with the association, the MMO has offered to consult it on any future amendments to the marine licence in question. In the light of concerns raised, though, it may be the case that consideration should be given to providing guidance to the MMO about the circumstances where the IFCA should be offered the chance to be a formal consultee. I shall explore this further.

My hon. Friend inquired whether parish councils can be made statutory consultees in the marine licensing process. The Marine and Coastal Access Act does not name specific persons or bodies that have to be consulted on a particular application, but it provides that the MMO may consult any person or body with relevant expertise about a licensing application, in addition to an obligation to have regard to any representations made by any person in respect of a particular application.

The MMO has considered the points that my hon. Friend makes about parish councils carefully. In many cases, other local organisations are equally, or perhaps better, placed to respond to the consultation. A statutory requirement to engage parish councils, which would require primary legislation, would potentially lead to a slower and more expensive service for the applicants. There is a risk that that approach would achieve the exact opposite of the efficient and cost-effective service that the MMO strives to provide. However, I am keen to explore further how local engagement on marine licence consultation can be strengthened with the MMO and other local bodies. If a relevant parish council is key to a particular application, it seems important to seek its views; that is a good point.

I take my hon. Friend’s point about advertising forthcoming applications in local newspapers. Even though I am a great advocate of our local press and have written for many local newspapers, their circulation is unfortunately declining, so all ways of advertising these things should be considered.

I thank my hon. Friend, who is always an advocate for his area and has put it on the map since he first came here. The Government acknowledge his concerns, and I hope it is clear that improvements to our marine planning and licensing are being worked on as I speak. I will write to the MMO to ask it to further consider how it consults fishermen’s associations and parish councils, and I shall report back to him.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.