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Marine Management Organisation

Volume 724: debated on Tuesday 13 December 2022

I will call Giles Watling to move the motion and will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as he will know is the convention for these shorter, 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effectiveness of the Marine Management Organisation.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am thrilled to have this opportunity to stand up for coastal communities, particularly my own in Clacton—a place that I have been a part of and lived in for over 55 years and have represented both locally and nationally since 2007. I have seen at first hand what works in our environment and what does not. Our extraordinary coastline has existed for hundreds of thousands of years. It is home to a Ramsar site and is a site of special scientific interest; it is a salt marsh, with superb beaches, cliffs and backwaters.

Recently, I tabled a private Member’s Bill that seeks to put in place a pilot to devolve many functions of the Marine Management Organisation to local authorities. The MMO is a group that I have increasingly come to see as not fit for purpose. It lacks experience and is flippant in respect of the needs of local communities. Indeed, I have been told that we once had turn up to look at a marine development in the backwaters two officials from the MMO who seemed to be surprised about tidal range and direction.

More recently, the Naze Protection Society waited 13 weeks for a licence from the MMO to undertake vital coastal works that involved protecting a sewage farm from incursion by the sea. Every tide that came and went and every storm that happened made those works more difficult and more expensive. The Naze Protection Society contacted me in desperation, as it had the money, the materials and the contractors standing by but was held up for want of a simple licence from the MMO. I made a couple of calls to the Minister and the Secretary of State, and the licence was issued almost immediately. It should not take a call to an MP to get this simple stuff done.

In my opinion, the MMO is failing. For that reason, I have worked with my excellent local authority, Tendring District Council, which has offered to put in place a pilot that it will run, absorbing and discharging the licensing and management duties. I want to see that happen for three core reasons, which also illustrate why I felt this debate was needed. First, it seems rather odd to me 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 the local scene. We need to look to a slimmer MMO, more devolution and a non-executive directors board of experts with real-life experience, holding the MMO to account.

Secondly, we should really be moving past all these organisations with people who just seem to collect non-executive directorships. We have spoken a lot in this place about how expensive distant and unaccountable quangos can be.

I share the same Marine Management Organisation group as my hon. Friend and have not found them as problematic as he has, but his assertion that we should move closer to local government is quite compelling. I was surprised that some relatively small works on a café on Southend pier had to go via the MMO, which is very centralised. It would be much more appropriate for Southend-on-Sea City Council to look at those issues, and I would appreciate it if my hon. Friend’s local authority could look into Southend also being involved in the pilot to bring those functions closer to the public and democratic accountability.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention; he is wise to mention that we should devolve those powers. In the end, that is exactly what this is all about. I am suggesting certain pilots, and my own local authority is happy to pilot them. I gently suggest to my hon. Friend that he should go to see his local authority and get it to agree to do a similar project. I think he might get some success.

The MMO is an example of the fact that His Majesty’s Government are sometimes happier going after lower-hanging fruit. For example, we scrapped the dreaded development corporations in 2010, because everybody saw them as bodies that did not care about local feelings towards development while still not achieving the revolution in house building the nation needed. It was a bloated public body that was ripe for the plucking, but just because the Marine Management Organisation’s offences are against fewer people and therefore less easily seen, they do not seem any less egregious. If local government can take on such duties, why should such an accountable body as Tendring District Council not do it? That is the correct argument that the Government executed in respect of development corporations.

Finally, and most pertinently, the MMO has displayed a flippant and unaccountable culture. When Members do things in this House, it should matter. If we criticise a public body for how it treats our constituents, that body should reach out and seek to offer reassurance on what it is doing in our communities. After all, nobody has a God-given right to spend taxpayer cash or to public power and authority. Sadly, since I tabled and spoke to my private Member’s Bill, I have not heard from the chief executive officer or chairman of the MMO—not a dicky bird.

I want to make two points before my hon. Friend concludes. First, I hope he recognises that although local authorities are good at making local decisions, some decisions on the management of seas and oceans can have an impact on other local authorities down the coastline, particularly in respect of coastal erosion. Does he agree that there needs to be an authority to oversee the multitude of decisions that are made?

On his second point, I will organise a meeting with the chief executive officer directly with my hon. Friend and myself, so that he can speak to him directly.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There should of course be a central overseeing body to oversee all this. I am seeking to devolve some of the powers to the local authorities because it makes sense: they understand exactly what is happening on the local scene.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the benefits of the whole of East Anglia, working right down the coast from Great Yarmouth to his constituency, is that our local authorities —the county councils and the district authorities—work together closely on the issue of the East Anglian coastline? They face challenges in dealing with the MMO. For example, Great Yarmouth Borough Council has been frustrated in developing the operations and maintenance hub, a new area for renewable energy. It has seen delays of six months and eight and a half months to its progress because of the MMO’s slow decision making. Speeding that up—or, indeed, allowing the local authority to have more authority to get on with the works, given their knowledge from working with enabling authorities—would give us a faster and better way to deliver more jobs and a better coastal community.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to ensure that we get decisions much more quickly, before more damage happens to our coastline. I have heard nothing from the MMO and have not had any comment from it about how it proposes to devolve its functions to local government. This debate is publicly on the Order Paper, yet the MMO has not reached out to discuss it. That suggests that it either thinks that a House debate on its performance is irrelevant or does not even check to see what is happening in this place and whether it needs to keep abreast of debate. Either way, it shows an arrogance that is not becoming in a public body.

What I find so sinister is that there is a private Member’s Bill to possibly radically alter how the MMO functions, and it feels that warrants no action. It is so seemingly content that it has the unrestricted right to gobble up taxpayer cash and play judge and jury in our communities that it has not bothered to articulate publicly why it should not be broken up. It clearly thinks that it is above reproach; well, no public body, including the MMO, is above this House. We often speak of the bonfire of quangos, and I think I have found another log for that fire.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I welcome the debate and am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) for securing it. I sense his frustrations and I am sympathetic to them; I will try to assist and alleviate some of them. My hon. Friend said that he has not heard from the MMO and that it has not engaged in the debate; it has sent a rather brilliant Minister to respond on its behalf. [Interruption.] Yes, unfortunately he could not be here so I have taken his place.

This is a timely debate: the MMO is due to publish its annual report next week. It comes ahead of the Second Reading of my hon. Friend’s ten-minute rule Bill, which is due in February. Alongside its marine licensing duties, the MMO covers a broad range of activities, including fisheries management and the management and regulation of marine protected sites. Many of these also interact with the MMO’s responsibilities as the marine planning authority for English waters, which my hon. Friend referenced. It has teams based in 15 locations around the English coast. It is responsible for engaging with the full range of local stakeholders, signposting to relevant MMO guidance and, where relevant, making introductions to other parts of the MMO in relation to specific activities.

When it comes to marine licensing and the process, the MMO is the appropriate marine licensing authority for English waters. The scope of responsibility and function held by the MMO ensures not only that marine licensing applications are assessed on an individual basis, but that marine planning activities are placed in a wider context so that conservation work on protected sites and species and compliance, monitoring and inspections are taken into consideration.

The MMO aims to determine 90% of marine licence applications within 13 weeks. Some cases are more complex and take longer because of the detailed technical and complex environmental assessments that may be required. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton referred to an individual case that he was working on and the fact that when he engaged with Ministers, he got a response very quickly. It is my understanding that that was purely coincidence—that a lot of work was going on in the background to gain access to that information, and the intervention of the Minister at the time coincided with the MMO pulling the information together and it being ready within a matter of hours.

I am aware of the circumstances around the licence application made for the sea defences at Naze. My understanding is that this licence has not been straightforward to determine. Supplementary information and assessments had to be sought from the applicant after the initial application was received in July 2021. This included a required water framework assessment and further information from the applicant to update the methodology of the works. The MMO also had some difficulty ascertaining whether Tendring District Council’s planning department was dealing with the planning application for the works as an environmental impact assessment application, and whether there was scope for working through the coastal concordat on the case. The potential for coastal concordat working was raised with the council on 2 August 2021, but it took seven weeks for the council’s planning department to reply, confirming its position. There was also a 28-day consultation period for interested parties and stakeholders to express their views on the licence application. I hope that my hon. Friend has some sympathy with the fact that there is a process to go through. Whether it was with the MMO or the local authority, there would be hoops and challenges to get through to ensure that we get to the right decisions.

Following the consultation period, the MMO identified that a habitats regulations assessment would also be required. Agreement was reached with the applicant on the fees only on 22 March, ahead of the MMO progressing the final determination and issuing that on 14 April. I am aware that an application for a licence variation was then received in July this year and I understand that it has been held up while the MMO has awaited the submission of an environmental impact assessment screening request from the applicant. That was received by the MMO on 3 November, and the MMO will move to consider the licence variation as soon as possible.

I understand that the time taken to determine some marine licence applications is sometimes frustrating. This case is an example of the complexity of some marine licences and of how careful consideration is paramount.

We are talking here about potential flooding—flood risk. The area around Jaywick in my constituency flooded in 1953, with the loss of some 90 lives, so when we see floods no one hangs around; people have to be fleet of foot. That is what I am asking for: fleetness of foot. The case that I identified earlier was one where, with every succeeding tide, the damage worsened, threatening to flood a sewage farm and poison the backwaters

I wholly acknowledge the necessity of speed to save his constituents and to ensure that no environmental damage is caused around Clacton. What we must not do, though, is introduce a scheme that might cause damage in another community six or seven miles down the coast. It is important to determine whether an action is required—it clearly was required—to protect an area or piece of infrastructure and that it does not impact on another piece of infrastructure that could cause even more damage. To do so, there needs to be an overarching authority that looks at all the facts in the light of day and, after all due consideration, says whether something is the right or wrong thing to do—whether the impacts of the decision made will be felt further down the coastline. My hon. Friend would be distressed if an application in—to pick a constituency at random—Southend were to have a huge impact on Clacton. He would be distressed if Southend-on-Sea City Council made that decision unilaterally without considering the impact on the community of Clacton.

As the debate has highlighted, the MMO has responsibilities in the marine space, all of which are crucial. We must not forget the adaptability of the MMO in its delivery of the important objectives that support the growth of our local communities, the trade in fish, and the marine environment. The MMO is the primary responder to marine emergency situations and is key to supporting evidence-based decisions that touch a range of Government Departments. I think that is the right outcome and an outcome that we can all agree on. We may disagree on whether the MMO performs to a level that we appreciate, but there has to be a regulator. We need to continue to support the MMO’s performance.

Ultimately, I think that falls under the umbrella of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I have regular meetings with the MMO—in fact, I met its chief executive this week. I asked him to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton, and he confirmed to me that he would be willing to meet; I will make sure that meeting happens. Let me say again that if other colleagues want to engage directly with the MMO, I am more than happy to facilitate meetings and to ensure that MMO is delivering for their constituents. We have had an interesting debate. I sense the frustration of some colleagues around the Chamber, but, as the Minister, I am more than happy to try to facilitate those discussions and to work with the MMO to deliver outcomes that hon. Members and their constituents want.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.