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Viewpoint: the value of sectoral marine plans

Existing experience indicates that the outputs from sectoral plans and environmental programmes are incorporated uncritically into national and regional marine plans. So, does this mean that marine planning as an integrated process is failing?

Marine planning is one of those big new ideas introduced to the UK through the Marine & Coastal Access Act 2009 designed to support integrated management of the sea. The 2014 EU Marine Spatial Planning Directive requires all EU Member States to produce marine plans covering their marine waters by 2021.

Within the UK, the devolved administrations have produced, or are in the process of producing marine plans covering their waters. For Scotland,(1) Wales(2) and Northern Ireland,(3) national plans have been prepared while for England(4) a series of regional plans are being produced which will provide comprehensive coverage of English waters.

Part of the rationale for introducing marine plans was that they would provide a more integrated approach to planning and management of the sea rather than being reliant on more siloed sectoral approaches. However, experience in the UK indicates that sectoral marine plans continue to be prepared and adopted. For example, in 2018 alone, the list includes:

  • Plans for offshore wind continue to be developed by The Crown Estate(5) (Offshore wind leasing Plans for English, Welsh and Northern Ireland waters) and Marine Scotland(6) (Offshore wind plan for Scottish waters)

  • Plans for licensing of UK offshore oil and gas exploration and development by the Oil and Gas Authority;(7)

  • Plans for minerals licensing rounds by The Crown Estate;(8)

  • Plans for Marine Protected Area designation and management(9) and management of Priority Marine Features.(10)

And alongside these sectoral plans we also have separate programmes for achieving marine environmental objectives, for example through the Water Framework Directive, Marine Strategy Framework Directive and the Common Fisheries Policy.

Existing experience indicates that the outputs from sectoral plans and environmental programmes are incorporated uncritically into national and regional marine plans. So, does this mean that marine planning as an integrated process is failing? Probably yes and no.

On the one hand, the number of sectoral marine plans and their uncritical adoption within national/regional marine plans demonstrates the weakness of marine planning as a holistic integrated process.

This has been highlighted by events such as RSPB’s legal challenge to Marine Scotland’s consenting of three east coast of Scotland offshore wind farms and the public wrangling over the sustainability of finfish aquaculture expansion in Scotland.

Also, the top down nature of sectoral planning doesn’t sit comfortably with the more participative approaches that marine planning initiatives are promoting.

On the other hand, sectoral marine planning represents the reality of existing governance arrangements where different bodies have responsibilities for strategic development planning in UK seas. It also reflects the requirement for sectoral planners to respond to market conditions.

For example, the cost reductions that have been achieved by the offshore wind industry have increased the appetite for and attractiveness of further offshore wind development which needs to be planned for now rather than be constrained by formal 3 and 6-yearly marine planning cycles.

It might also be argued that sectoral plans provide a clear focus for relevant stakeholders and where such plans are progressed through a strategic environmental and socio-economic appraisal process, this can lead to social acceptance of plan outcomes.

Experiences in relation to the Welsh National Marine Plan also provide a salutary lesson.

In seeking to ensure that the draft plan meaningfully contributed to Wales’ wellbeing goals, the draft plan included a number of Strategic Resource Area (SRAs) policies which indicated support for specific activities including aggregates, wave energy, tidal stream, tidal lagoon, port and aquaculture development within the SRAs.

The draft policies did not create a presumption in favour of development, nor did they indicate preference for any particular scale of development. However, the policies were strongly challenged by some stakeholders on the grounds that they were insufficiently evidenced. This has led to reconsideration of the policies and delays in the finalisation of the plan.

Going forward it is difficult to see things changing very much under current governance arrangements. However, it is likely that sectoral marine plans will come under increasing scrutiny from marine stakeholders that are increasingly articulate, willing to challenge plans and have an expectation of participation in marine plan-making processes.

Prepared by Stephen Hull, Marine Planning Specialist


(1) GOV.SCOT, (2) GOV.WALES, (3) DAERA, (4) GOV.UK, (5) The Crown Estate [archived], (6) GOV.SCOT, (7) OGA, (8) The Crown Estate [archived], (9) GOV.SCOT, (10) GOV.SCOT

Header photo courtesy Andrew Pearson