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Marine Activities (Licensing)

Volume 720: debated on Wednesday 12 October 2022

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23, and Order, 22 September)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to transfer responsibility for marine licensing from the Marine Management Organisation to local authorities; and for connected purposes.

I am pleased to be able to stand up for coastal communities today, particularly my own community of Clacton, a place I first came to in 1957 and have represented locally and nationally since 2007. I have seen at first hand what works locally and what, sadly, does not work. Our great coastline has evolved over millennia, and I hope to keep that track record going.

The Bill seeks to put in place a pilot to devolve many of the Marine Management Organisation’s functions to local authorities, and I will put forward my reasoning now. The MMO is a group that I have increasingly come to see as not fit for purpose in its current form. As a Member for a coastal area, and a boating man for over half a century, I like to think that I speak with some authority on this subject. Few people know about the vital role of the MMO. It manages some 90,000 square miles of hugely diverse seas and coastal areas, which is roughly the same size as the United Kingdom’s land mass. To give some context, 95% of our imports and exports come by sea, around 20 million tonnes of aggregates are taken from our seas for construction projects each year and the UK is working towards a third of our electricity being produced from offshore wind by 2030. Our seas are also home to 175 marine protected areas. At the same time, our seas and coasts are the backbone of our fishing and seafood industries, with a combined gross value added to the economy of almost £2 billion per year. This little-known group has tremendous control over all those activities.

The issues here are a lack of expertise in the subject, a deficiency in direction and oversight and, above all, thanks to our vast and varied coastline, a lack of local insight. In terms of real expertise, I have heard tales of faceless officials taking months and months to determine licences due to a lack of practical understanding of what they are looking at. Indeed, I was told that two officials from the MMO came to Walton-on-the-Naze in my constituency to take stock of a marine development in our backwaters. They seemed to be surprised about the tidal range and direction there.

Also, we recently had a serious issue with sea defences on the Naze, an area of land that projects out into the North sea. The sea wall that kept a sewage farm secure was deteriorating at a rapid rate. The local Naze Protection Society, with the assistance of landowners and local councillors, swung into action. After effecting temporary repairs, they made the plans, raised the money and ensured that the contractors were ready to go. All was in place, except for a licence from the MMO to carry out the necessary works. With every tide, and especially every storm, making the job more difficult, urgent, and expensive, it was paramount that this licence was granted so that the works could commence, yet after 13 weeks, the MMO had failed to issue it. At this point I was approached and, after banging a few heads together, I managed to get the licence issued within an hour or so. Work began the very next day. It really should not depend on Members of this place calling Ministers and Secretaries of State to get these results. I pay tribute to the wonderful people involved in those vital works for raising tens of thousands of pounds and for keeping their patience with the MMO at that time.

Looking at the senior structure of the organisation, it is quite clear why we have an issue. The MMO’s senior executive and non-executive leadership is comprised of laudable expertise from Government Departments—such as the DWP in this case—and externally from the private sector world of communication. However, a central body, no matter how well led, cannot be expected to understand the minutiae of local issues as well as a local council can. The experience in Clacton with the MMO is meeting officers who were unaware of the tidal area we have on our sunshine coast. It is my strong view that the central leadership of our great public sector is simply not delivering in this case. The MMO was created by the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, and it should have regular reviews every three years. I welcome its 10-year plan, but there is nothing in there about the role that it can and should play in the regeneration of declining coastal communities such as my own.

It seems rather odd that we allow the MMO so much centralised power. We have seen planning and licensing become core parts of local authorities’ action plans. Councils are accountable and, by their very nature, have a deep understanding of local issues and their local scene. I think we need to look to a slimmer MMO with more devolution and with a non-executive directors board of experts with real-life experience holding it to account. I have held talks with my own district council in Tendring, the chief executive officer of which is the very capable Mr Ian Davidson, and it has expressed an interest in finding out how it could take on many of these functions—with, of course, centralised oversight. The council is prepared to carry out a pilot scheme and to spearhead this much-needed change. It is merely a case of local knowledge for local issues. You do not need to be a maritime expert to run the MMO, any more than you need to be a constitutional scholar to be a Member of this place. However, given the problems I have outlined, I feel it is time to say that localism has merit. We often speak about bonfires of quangos. Well, I think I have just found another log for that fire!

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Giles Watling and Stephen Metcalfe present the Bill.

Giles Watling accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 February 2023, and to be printed (Bill 160).