Motion to Consider
My Lords, the order is made under the Public Bodies Act 2011. Section 4 of the Act enables Ministers to make an order modifying the funding arrangements of certain public bodies, including the Marine Management Organisation. The purpose of the order is to allow the MMO to charge for the monitoring, varying and transfer of marine licences.
The MMO is the principal regulator of marine activities around England and was created by the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. Its mission is to enable sustainable growth in our marine area, facilitating growth in coastal communities while protecting and enhancing the marine environment. Its responsibilities include the operation of the marine licensing system in English waters and the offshore waters of Wales and Northern Ireland.
Part 4 of the Marine and Coastal Access Act created the new streamlined marine licensing system for most UK waters. The system replaced the previous licensing system under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985. A marine licence enables consistent decision-making about what activities are allowed to take place in the marine environment. Developments subject to a marine licence can range from small projects, such as the installation of buoys or the construction of small jetties, to larger harbour, dredging and wind farm developments. It is government policy to recover licensing costs where practicable. To a large extent, the Marine and Coastal Access Act and regulations made under it allow for the recovery of most of the costs associated with marine licensing. Indeed, the fee structure for marine licensing was updated and revised in April this year. This revision was designed to ensure that the calculation of fees more accurately reflected the actual costs incurred by the MMO.
However, the powers in the Marine and Coastal Access Act do not allow for the recovery of all the costs associated with monitoring, variations and transfers of licences. These costs were recoverable under the previous licensing system, and it was never the intention to omit them from the Marine and Coastal Access Act. The proposed order under the Public Bodies Act is therefore designed to close this particular funding gap. The order specifies that the MMO may charge a fee in relation to monitoring an activity authorised by a marine licence, the variation of an existing licence and the transfer and variation of a licence from the licensee to another person. The order specifies the level of the fees that may be charged. The basic principle is to charge applicants for the hours that are worked on a case, with the hourly rate fixed at £94. However, maximum ceilings will apply to simple variations or transfers, or the monitoring of non-complex cases. This is intended to provide greater certainty for smaller businesses and other operators. A different formula will apply in relation to the monitoring of disposal sites for dredged material. In these cases, the fee is calculated on a per tonne basis, up to a maximum of £15,000. This is because disposal sites are typically used by more than one operator and the MMO needs to have a method for apportioning the monitoring costs. Once in force, the order will increase the MMO’s income from marine licensing by about £600,000 a year. In the overall context, that sum of money may not appear huge but, in the context of the MMO’s budget of about £28 million and the focus on costs, it will make an important difference.
We have consulted on these proposals. As explained in the explanatory document accompanying this order, most respondents agreed with the overall principle and the need to recover costs. However, there were inevitably some concerns about the potential burden of regulation and the need for transparency and consistency in charging. We and the MMO are sensitive to the pressures on marine businesses and other users and have worked hard to remove unnecessary regulation and make the system work as efficiently as possible. This has included exempting low-risk activities, the use of longer licences for activities such as dredging and disposal, fast-track licensing for simple straightforward applications and the introduction of a coastal concordat to improve co-ordination of the consenting process for coastal developments in England.
I am grateful to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for clearing the draft order within the 40-day affirmative procedure. In its consideration of the order, the committee agreed with the Government that in the longer term it will be desirable to rectify the deficiency in charging powers through an amendment to the Marine and Coastal Access Act. My department will continue to look for a suitable opportunity to do so in the future.
In summary, the Government consider that the approach set out in this order will provide a fair means of charging, a modest saving to taxpayers and an essential support to the MMO’s efforts in safeguarding the marine environment. To this end, I commend the order to the Committee.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the order, which I very much welcome. I chaired the joint pre-legislative scrutiny committee on the Marine and Coastal Access Bill. One of the concerns of the committee was the funding of the Marine Management Organisation. That was reinforced during the passage of the Bill through this House. As the Minister said, the Marine Management Organisation is still somewhat underfunded. This is especially so since Defra’s budget was cut. I think that what is proposed here is really a variation on the “user pays” principle. It is absolutely right that the MMO should be able to recover the full costs of varying or monitoring marine licences. In my opinion, the measure is very much to be welcomed. I think the Minister said that the MMO will gain to the tune of £600,000 a year and the taxpayer will be saved from paying that amount.
I thank the Minister for his explanation of the ordering. From these Benches, I am happy to approve of the measure. The Marine Management Organisation is a relatively new organisation set up by the previous Labour Government under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. It was set up with cross-party support, and it is encouraging that it still receives that support.
We continue with our support for this order to allow the MMO to move towards full cost recovery in relation to the activities it undertakes. The old licensing system under Part 2 of the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 was insufficient in a number of ways to allow cost recovery. It is therefore regrettable that, under the charging powers of the Marine and Coastal Access Act, monitoring costs, especially for dredging, are still not fully recoverable. While powers under the Public Bodies Act are being used to move more quickly towards full cost recovery, I join with the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee in considering that it would be desirable that Defra remedies the situation through an amendment to the MCAA 2009 at an early opportunity.
I also recognise that the MMO has undertaken a review of activities and moved quickly to reduce unnecessary burdens and costs on businesses and other marine users by increasing the number of exempt activities, expanding the use of longer licences and other efficiency measures. Further improvements will be encouraged through the organisation’s stakeholder forum group, customer satisfaction surveys and key performance indicators.
Can the Minister clarify further, however, how the MMO will operate in relation to establishing an ambitious, ecologically coherent and well managed network of marine protection areas, which was also part of the MCCA 2009? Can he confirm that the MMO will be involved under the power to designate marine conservation zones in UK waters? What assessment have the Government made to allow the MMO to move towards full cost recovery in the activity on designation and regulation of the planned marine coastal zones? An independent science advisory panel concluded that 120 sites would contribute to an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas, and that this network would need to be strengthened. However, in November 2013, the Government designated just 27 zones, covering 8,000 square kilometres of offshore waters and around 2,000 square kilometres of inshore waters. Will these cost recovery powers allow more sites to be designated and monitored at an earlier date—that is, much sooner—following further site-specific conservation advice?
Finally, I ask the Minister whether, under the regulations for fee ceilings, which will limit the cost to smaller-scale projects for small businesses, the cost met by the public subsidy will have a cap attached. If so, at what level will it be and how will it work? With those few comments, I am content to support the order.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their comments on the order—in particular those of the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, which were helpful.
Noble Lords know that we are committed to achieving a sustainable marine economy, which means, among other things, having an effective system for managing activities taking place in our seas. The marine planning and licensing systems are operated by the Marine Management Organisation and are key to that. In setting up the MMO, the Government have been keen to ensure that it can operate effectively and efficiently, and it needs to have the right people and resources to act as a modern enabling regulator. This means working to find solutions that enable sustainable growth to take place while protecting and enhancing the marine environment. It also means recovering the reasonable costs that it incurs in licensing.
Noble Lords referred to the views of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. As I said, the committee has agreed with the Government that, in the longer term, it will be desirable to rectify the deficiency in charging powers through an amendment to the Marine and Coastal Access Act, and we will continue to look for a suitable opportunity to do that.
The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, asked a number of questions, partly around MPAs. As he said, we have announced an initial 27. The MMO will be involved in meeting the objectives on marine conservation zones; for example, through marine plans and licensing. We intend to designate further sites and will make a decision on them early next year.
The noble Lord’s other questions centred on capping of fees. Costs will be met by public subsidy, which we will be able to manage through careful case management and efficiencies. If I have missed anything in that answer, I will write to the noble Lord, but I hope that he will accept it.
Approval of the order will enable the MMO to recover the cost of regulatory activities that it cannot currently charge for. As I have said, this change will result in a saving of about £600,000 annually to taxpayers. Despite that not being a huge sum of money, it will make a big difference to the MMO’s finances in these straitened times and is essential to delivering and maintaining a high-quality service. I thank noble Lords for their contributions.