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4.3 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) talks about coastal access, which several of us are examining. However, it would be difficult to address that subject during the passage of a marine Bill. Many of us would like such a Bill to come before the House as quickly as possible. I think that there is huge agreement among parties and throughout the country about the virtue of a marine Bill that can be enacted as soon as possible. Most hon. Members also support the principle and philosophy that lies behind
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the White Paper “A Sea Change”. Some of the issues that I will raise in my speech could easily be addressed during the legislative process of a marine Bill.

It is a huge disappointment that the Bill is not already before us, and I am not exactly clear on why the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs cannot introduce it. The fact that there is to be a climate change Bill is a real advance, but we cannot address all our problems and difficulties through that Bill. We need a marine Bill, too, because we have to ensure that our terrestrial and freshwater, as well as marine, environments are looked after to the highest possible standards. I am a little bit concerned that the reason why the marine Bill has not been brought forward is that there is no consensus between Departments. There is no consensus with the Department of Trade and Industry on oil and gas extraction and exploration. [Interruption.] I rather think that the issue is the Scottish, but I might be wrong. There is also the issue of the Department for Transport, and its interest in ports and shipping, and the Department for Communities and Local Government and the matter of aggregate extraction. On the foreshore, between the high-water mark and the low-water mark, there is the relationship between terrestrial and marine planning to be considered.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has had an opportunity to read the White Paper in its entirety, particularly pages 28 and 29, which set out all the relevant human activities and associated infrastructure, as well as natural resources, features and processes. The Bill will be extremely complex, and given those complexities, I suspect that he and Opposition Members would accuse us of rushing things and bringing forward unprepared legislation if we had brought it forward earlier.

Mr. Williams: The Government have had a lot of time to address the issues. It will be difficult, but where there is the will, consensus should be found. My concern is how long it will take to implement the proposals in the White Paper, even once the legislation receives Royal Assent. The hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) made a valuable point when he advocated that we should start to prepare the statement now, if England, Wales and Scotland are agreed that such a statement needs to be made. Page 9 of the White Paper gives a time scale; the marine management organisation is to be set up in the first year, but it has to carry on with its work at that time, and it is not until the fourth year that the first marine plan is to be adopted. It is 20 years before the full set of marine plans are to be adopted. If the MMO is to do its work effectively, those systems and plans need to be in place, so that people can have confidence in the difficult decisions that it has to make. The marine environment is obviously particularly important for Britain, given its large coastline.

Linda Gilroy: I am looking at page 9, too; I had actually turned to it before the hon. Gentleman mentioned it, and was about to intervene on him about it, because I note that it is planned that, within a year, the MMO will be set up and the first shared UK marine policy statement and the new marine licensing regimes will be implemented. Does he think that that could be done more quickly? They are necessary precursors to what comes afterwards.

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Mr. Williams: I agree, and we want the processes to be in place as quickly as possible. If people are to take decisions on licensing, as local planning authorities do in the terrestrial sphere, they need criteria against which those decisions can be made. That work will take quite a long time, but it is that work that will give credibility to the MMO and its licensing functions and will give the public confidence in them.

It is because Britain has a maritime climate that the marine environment is important to us. Substantial changes in that environment could have devastating effects on Britain. Changes in the Gulf stream, for instance, could radically affect our climate. Until recently, it was thought that the capacity of the sea was so huge that it could cope with all the pollution and detritus that human activity and civilisation produce and render it inactive and safe. It is clear, however, that not only does human activity affect near-coastal areas but that it has a terrific effect on the very deep oceans, and traces of our activity are in evidence in the deepest oceans.

I am certainly in favour of the proposed marine management organisation, as we need to simplify the licensing system. However, we must be sure that it has the confidence of people who make applications and are affected by its decision making. I am very much in favour of a one-project, one-licence system, but perhaps we should call it a one-project, one-application, one-licence system to ensure that it is even simpler. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown said that we may need a system of appeal against decisions by the MMO if applicants do not think that their applications have been judged against the criteria in the plan or statement. I have always been a fan of third-party appeals against planning applications when it can be shown that the decision is at variance with development plans, so I wonder whether the Minister would consider whether third parties should have a right of appeal in this instance.

The White Paper mentions a marine planning steering group, which would be set up to prepare mini-plans for particularly sensitive areas such as estuaries. It would be interesting to know from the Minister which people would serve on such a body, because they would have extremely important work to do. The Liberal Democrats welcome the establishment of the MMO, which could deliver a wide range of marine management functions, as stated in the White Paper. That will provide the Government with a better overview of all activities in, and the uses of, our seas, and they can use that overview for better management of the marine eco-system. I worry a little bit about the democratic accountability of the MMO, so can the Minister give us an indication of how that will be achieved, as bodies that are wholly appointed invite a certain amount of distrust from the public?

Turning to marine conservation zones, the hon. Member for Leominster pointed out that only a very small part of our seas, in the Lundy area, is covered by such a zone at the moment. It is positive that the White Paper states that marine conservation zones will be a priority and that some will be given the very highest levels of protection. I am concerned, however, that it has been suggested that only the minimum area will be considered for protection to achieve the purposes of conservation.

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Mr. Bradshaw: I was concerned about that point when it was made by the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin). I should be grateful if he or the hon. Gentleman could say exactly where they have got the idea that only the smallest possible areas will be given the highest levels of protection, as that is certainly not the Government’s intention. We have made it clear that protected areas will vary in both size and levels of protection.

Mr. Williams: I am not in a position to pick that up in the White Paper, but I can quote the words,

Bill Wiggin: The reference the hon. Gentleman is looking for is on page 70, in the shaded area covered by the second paragraph, which refers to the sites which are:

Mr. Williams: I am not sure how different that is—perhaps the Minister will explain.

Environmental non-governmental organisations are also concerned about the fact that socio-economic concerns will be taken into consideration when making designations. That is not the case in land designations—when sites of special scientific interest are designated, socio-economic concerns are not taken into consideration. I am not wholly opposed to socio-economic concerns being considered, but it is important that the Minister tells us what weight they should carry in the designation process.

I pay tribute to the work that the Minister has done on whaling and the moratorium that he has worked so hard to achieve. I just wonder whether his drive and conviction are reflected in other parts of Government such as the Foreign Office, and at the very top in the Prime Minister. When the Prime Minister met the Prime Minister of Japan, as I understand he did in January, did he raise the subject of whaling? It is at that level that a real impact is made and real change is achieved.

We are all impatient for a marine Bill. While DEFRA fiddles, our marine environment deteriorates and inappropriate projects are imposed on our coastal areas. I urge the Minister to ensure that a marine Bill appears in the next Queen’s Speech so that the House can engage in making it the best piece of legislation possible.

4.17 pm

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I join other hon. Members in welcoming the prospect of a marine Bill in the next Session. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) said, it should be a straightforward Bill to produce following the excellent White Paper.

I shall comment on the planning aspects of the White Paper’s proposals on the marine environment. My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned in his opening speech the draft Climate Change Bill. I believe that the marine Bill will have a substantial bearing on large elements of the arrangements that this country will need to make to secure our energy supplies and thereby make a real contribution to combating climate change.
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In that context and others, it is important to achieve clarity about what goes where and when and what else should be done in respect of the seas surrounding our country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown pointed out, it is also important to have clarity about matters such as the compatibility of offshore energy developments with no-take zones and marine protection zones. Such installations may well protect and develop such zones rather than detract from them.

It is important that we consider those aspects of what the marine Bill might do, not least because we as a country recently agreed at the EU summit to pursue a target of deriving 20 per cent. of our energy in general from renewables by 2020. That will mean a far higher proportion of our electricity coming from renewables. Over the next few years, most of it will come from offshore wind, wave and tidal technology. As reflected in the White Paper, there is also the question of carbon capture and storage as a longer-term measure in relation to carbon abatement. That would be overwhelmingly likely to be stored in aquifers and gas wells in the North sea and would therefore come within the terms of the planning arrangements that will be necessary on the integrated basis envisaged in the White Paper.

It is important that the marine management organisation suggested in the White Paper manage the idea of “one project, one consent” holistically, in terms of the range of competing users who operate intensively on our shores and the deeper sea areas off our coast. In the area immediately adjacent to my constituency in the Solent, they include marinas, the port of Southampton, the natural environment, and in-shore fisheries. The ability of the marine management organisation to ensure that they engage in harmonious development within these heavily used waters is an important part of what the Bill will achieve.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): My hon. Friend makes an interesting point that highlights the importance of not rushing the Bill and counters the argument made by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). This is a very complex area, not only as regards what is happening on the surface of our oceans—we do not fully understand what is happening in 90 per cent. of the area underneath them either.

Dr. Whitehead: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Indeed, it is not only a question of understanding what is happening in the seas but of frequently overlapping and archaic forms of permission, particularly as regards port use and management and in-shore waters. For example, hon. Members may be interested to consider what is required to change mooring posts in a marina, several of which are situated close to my constituency and in the Solent generally: planning permission from the local authority; a FEPA—Food and Environmental Protection Act 1985—construction licence issued by DEFRA; consent under the Coast Protection Act 1949; land drainage consent issued by the Environment Agency; and probably a harbour works licence issued by the harbour authority, if there is one. Under the guidance of a marine management organisation, all those could be conflated into one licence. We can imagine what a change that would make in terms of clarifying the processes and ensuring that they do not clash with each other.

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Linda Gilroy: I am following my hon. Friend’s remarks carefully. That is certainly our experience in Plymouth. Does he think that the Conservative spokesman’s contribution was a little lacking in detail on these matters because there are very few moorings in his constituency of Leominster?

Bill Wiggin: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not hear fully what the hon. Lady said, but she could at least pronounce my constituency correctly.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a point of order, but at least he has put the record straight. However, these exchanges have taken up a little time that may be needed by those still waiting to speak.

Dr. Whitehead: I am sure that the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) has carefully studied the multiple permissions that currently need to be obtained, especially in a harbour authority area. I am sure that he understands the point about how such a change in authority would benefit the process.

What are the overall implications of a unified planning system? I want to consider a problem with a unified planning system for coastal waters and, indeed, waters in the continental shelf around the UK generally, which the White Paper does not particularly recognise or emphasise, but is nevertheless important, especially in the context of the hard work that needs to be undertaken in the next few years to secure consents, to develop offshore renewables and to ensure that they are compatible with the other uses that I described. The White Paper proposes a unified planning system, but not a system that is an exact replica of that for onshore planning because it will face an monopoly landowner: the Crown estate.

The Crown estate said in its evidence to the consultation that took place before the White Paper was drawn up:

The Crown estate owns approximately 50 per cent. of the foreshore in the UK, almost all the sea bed up to 12 miles and the rights under the Energy Act 2004 to license sea bed activity, such as renewables, outside the 12-mile zone.

That organisation is not a quango or a non-departmental governmental organisation. It has no key performance indicators, targets or percentage agreed return. It was established under the Crown Estate Act 1961 and it administers the monopoly property on the sea bed that is effectively owned by Her Majesty. In effect, it voluntarily gives its income after operating costs to the Treasury, which has a right to issue directions to the Crown estate. Otherwise, it is not responsible to the House or to anybody else and no directions have been issued since 1961. There is a general requirement under the Act for it to act commercially. In practice, that has meant that the Crown estate has taken a fee for giving licences, subject to the planning process, to wind farms, both initially and in the second round of consents. However, it is not
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clear whether the charges are at the market rate, how the rate is determined and the effect on those who apply for licences.

As far as I understand it, the Crown estate also has a taxation agreement with wind farm operators on the electricity produced. I wonder whether more thought should be given to that and whether the arrangement is the best way forward for the tremendous gearing up of the process of ensuring that the amount of energy from around our coasts and the sea to which we have committed ourselves in the next few years can be provided.

The Crown estate’s marine activities provide the Treasury with £38 million a year. The Treasury therefore provides some assistance under renewables obligation certification for offshore wind, which pays the Crown estate an amount of money for licences and effective taxation on energy produced. That money is then paid back to the Treasury. I am not sure that that is the ideal way to ensure that these developments are pursued to the best advantage of our country and our energy supplies.

The proposed planning regime will therefore sit on top of those landowner arrangements. I would modestly suggest that it would be a good idea for the Treasury to consider what directions it might give to the Crown estate in regard to how it should deal with the burgeoning number of consents, applications and licensing arrangements for renewable energy supplies over the next few years.

We need a unified planning regime that operates both at sea and on shore in relation to the consequences of what happens at sea. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Leominster express his support for the idea that the planning regime set out in the White Paper should unify the land-based consequences of seaborne renewable energy activities. Even now, one local authority, Swale, has effectively— [ Interruption. ] I was not going to mention the fact that it is Conservative controlled, but since it has been pointed out, I will. That authority has simply refused to countenance the idea of a landing station for the London Array offshore wind scheme, which could power the whole of Kent with renewable energy. That is not remotely the right way forward for the future of renewable resources in the North sea and elsewhere.

Mr. Bradshaw: Heaven forbid that I should be political for a moment, but does my hon. Friend agree that that is typical of an Opposition party that says one thing but does another?

Dr. Whitehead: I find it difficult to answer such a tough question. However, I think that my hon. Friend is right. In the light of the endorsement by the hon. Member for Leominster of the idea that there should be a joint planning regime, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will shortly be going down to Swale to inform people that it would be a good idea if they sorted those arrangements out so that the development could go ahead.

Bill Wiggin: The important point was that, according to the White Paper, it will be the role of the marine
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management organisation to ensure that we achieve the kind of joined-up government that we have been promised, but that, sadly, has not been delivered by the Labour Government. We believe that local planning cases, as they currently stand, should be determined by local people through their local authority. The Bill will be a separate piece of legislation, which does not apply at the moment.

Dr. Whitehead: I endorse the White Paper’s proposal that it is inappropriate to have 95 per cent. of a major planning decision such as the one I have just mentioned decided in one way, only for the whole decision to be derailed because the body responsible for the pipe coming to the shore decides to do something else. The new planning legislation will underline that view. The White Paper’s emphasis on the fact that the marine management organisation will, under the granting of a section 36 agreement, also deem planning permission will be another important aspect of the Bill.

Overall, the White Paper and the Bill that will follow it will represent a good step forward for the management of the natural resources around our coasts and, particularly, for the management of renewable energy in the years to come. They will also be imperative in ensuring that this is achieved in an efficient way, and I hope that the Bill will come before the House soon. One thing we all have to remember is that we have a limited amount of time to get those renewable devices working and providing energy from the shores around us, with which we are uniquely blessed in Europe. We must ensure that the management of the seas is compatible with what we know will be important for our renewable energy supplies for the future.

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