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Calmer waters ahead

Atkins | 17 Jan 2010 | Comments

The high seas may represent adventure to some, but in reality, they’re a complex maze of business dealings, institutional aspirations and political policy-making. But as renewable energy and environmental concerns top the agenda, new legislation is on the horizon that may help companies like Atkins in their efforts to set sail for a more sustainable future.

From piracy in the Indian Ocean to ongoing debates over who owns the rights to waters beneath the North Pole, the seas of the world can sometimes take on a distinctly Wild West quality.

While fishing rights have always been subject to legal skirmishes, issues surrounding drilling rights and access for renewables projects are growing increasingly heated. Unfortunately, there hasn’t just been one sheriff in town, but numerous deputies, none with the authority to maintain law and order in a way that works for all. The Marine and Coastal Access Bill, covering England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, will change all that.

“In the UK, the complexities of the current system have grown worse over that time,” says Nigel Coulshed, head of marine environmental impact assessment at Atkins. A tangle of marine agencies, overlapping legislation and a lack of detailed planning data in the UK have tended to hamper the efforts of both developers and conservationists, raising costs and hassle for all sides.

“In the past, it reached the point where the developers had to negotiate through several organisations that were empowered by various pieces of legislation, which in turn struggled to deliver consent with the speed and consistency that was often required,” says Coulshed. “These things needed to be addressed in a way that was less risky to investors.”

After several years of discussion, the Marine and Coastal Access Bill finally completed its passage through Parliament and received Royal Assent in November 2009.

Atkins is now working with the Local Government Association in England to clarify how Local Authority staff will be able to deliver the many varied aspects of the Bill.

Coulshed points out that legislation is long overdue and will be particularly welcome to the offshore renewables industry. Atkins is contributing its expertise to a number of major renewables projects, from wind to tidal, that rely on coastal waters. The need to develop renewable energy sources such as tidal and wind power was part of the drive to make the coastline regulatory environment more coherent and easier to access.

Once in force, the Marine and Coastal Access Bill will establish a Marine Management Organisation (MMO), based in Newcastle, centralising many areas of existing regulation in one body, including planning, licensing and enforcement. The MMO aims to be a “one-stop-shop” for license applicants, replacing the scrum of agencies currently regulating the seas. It will also have new powers to reform fisheries management, establish “Marine Conservation Zones” and oversee the creation of a walkable route around the English coast.

As well as establishing the MMO, the Marine Bill will also delegate varying degrees of authority to the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland’s new regulator, Marine Scotland – which was set up in April 2009 – will enjoy the widest powers, including responsibility for marine science, planning, policy development, management and for monitoring compliance. Scotland is passing its own legislation, which contains several important differences from the prospective British law. The Scottish Marine Bill is due to be passed by April 2010.

Peter Madigan, offshore renewables development manager at the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA), says the new legislation will help to clarify the current process for developers, reducing the current uncertainty over the approvals process: “The planning process is only a small part of a wind farm development, but at the moment it can have a disproportionate effect.”

He cautions, however, that the legislation only sets a framework for planning and licensing, and secondary legislation. The way in which the Bill is implemented will have an impact on the renewables industry going forward.

More open waters

Coulshed points to “The Tangle of the Clyde”, a study undertaken by the WWF on the Firth of Clyde, on the West Coast of Scotland, as an example of where an abundance of legislation and overlapping regulatory agencies were stifling both necessary development and protection of the environment.

Until Marine Scotland was established, the area was overseen by the Scottish Executive, the UK government and local and port authorities. Those bodies in turn delegated responsibilities to the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency, Fisheries Research Service, Scottish Agricultural Science Agency, Scottish Natural Heritage, Historic Scotland, Tourism Cultural Heritage and so on.

Across the UK, some 13 different bodies have had responsibility for different parts of the marine environment, and 85 acts of Parliament have related to coastal or marine activities.

Rhona Fairgrieve, officer at the Scottish Coastal Forum, an umbrella organisation for different coastal stakeholders, says the UK Bill, along with a separate bill now going through the Scottish Parliament, will end the current uncoordinated use of the marine environment.

“The move towards a legislative approach centred around marine planning is something we support because, ultimately, it should lead to a balance of the uses made of marine resources,” she says. “The bills will make sure that different activities take place in locations that are best suited to those activities.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which is overseeing the creation of the MMO, says the new licensing regime aims to consolidate two existing pieces of legislation: the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 (FEPA) and the Coast Protection Act 1949 (CPA). Instead of applying for a separate FEPA license and CPA consent, in the future applicants will apply for a single Marine License. Defra hopes the changes will result in the issuing of 25 per cent fewer licenses overall.

Defra spokesperson Martin Deller says the MMO will be able to take a more joined-up approach to marine management by considering all factors of a new project at the same time. Currently, different agencies use different timetables, considering aspects of a proposal in an ad hoc manner.

“This will give us a more streamlined process for considering licence applications, but at the same time we’ll be able to look at the bigger picture and see what impact each project will have on the marine environment,” he says. Defra claims that the MMO will offer the “world’s first comprehensive marine planning system”.

Coasting into the future

Another reason why the government believes the licensing process will improve is because of changes the Bill makes to the planning process. Under the legislation, the MMO and the devolved government bodies will have responsibility for undertaking detailed planning assessments of the UK coastline, identifying potential uses for each area.

“We’ll be in a situation where we could apply the techniques of terrestrial planning to the marine environment, which really hasn’t been done before, but there is some debate as to how appropriate this would be. The sea is a dynamic environment, so any system must involve planning for activities, resources as well as development. Marine Planning is all about developing an integrated spatial vision that allows proactive planning for the future” Coulshed says.

“There are massive information gaps in terms of what’s under our seas,” he adds. “Some of the existing data is very old. Methodologies have moved on and, in a number of cases, there is no data at all. There is a huge amount of data gathering that needs to take place. That’s probably one of the areas where consultants have a role to play, in feeding into that process.”

The aim of the legislation is to have areas of the marine environment already sectioned off as potential sites for certain activities – as is the case with terrestrial planning. If a developer of a wind farm, for instance, wants to make an application to build, the area in question will already have been subject to a Strategic Environmental Assessment to say whether it is an appropriate site. The relevant authority will then undertake a more detailed environmental impact assessment before giving the final go-ahead.

Coulshed says the various new public sector agencies created by this Bill will not necessarily have the capacity needed to carry out all their new responsibilities. As a consequence, the private sector will need to take up some of the slack. In particular, there will be requirements for generating, managing and storing planning data; commissioning different types of specialist scientific research; and consulting on a range of legal and historical matters.

One area of potential complication is “trans-border issues”, where a project overlaps two jurisdictions (for example, if an offshore wind farm spans English and Scottish waters). It also remains to be seen how the new marine regulators will interact with land-based authorities over developments that encompass both planning zones (such as ports set up specifically for the shipping involved in erecting very large offshore wind turbines).

Making it happen

Implementation of the Bill varies across the UK, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each taking up powers provided by the legislation. Marine Scotland will take responsibility for many of the same aspects of the legislation taken up by the MMO in England, including scientific research, compliance monitoring and policy statements as agreed with London. Westminster, however, will retain powers over certain strategic areas, such as planning relating to the oil and gas industry.

In Scotland, Atkins is now part of a framework, along with four other firms, that will provide a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and Appropriate Assessment (AA), and develop marine spatial plans for Marine Scotland to support sustainable economic development in Scottish waters.

Kath Winnard, marine environmental scientist at Atkins, says one of the company’s advantages in helping implement the new legislation is its in-depth knowledge of each authority. (Winnard herself previously worked for the Welsh Authority Government as its Bill manager). She emphasises that the legislation leaves a fair amount of flexibility for the authorities, and that the law is more a “framework” than a set of hard and fast rules. The aim, she says, is to take account of local concerns, political preferences and environmental considerations.

Whether this leads to a widening of differences between the authorities in the four regions is an open question.

Whatever the differences, however, the legislation will take some time before it is implemented and the various stakeholders start to see the benefits of more streamlined planning, licensing and enforcement.

“Terrestrial planning is something like 60 years old and they are still working on that,” says Winnard. “It’s going to take time in the marine environment. It’s a big task.”

The legislation in the UK is also just one part of an increasingly complex global puzzle. Government agencies around the world have been looking at similar legislation, as a way to navigate through these uncharted waters. Atkins is starting work for the Commonwealth Secretariat to help evaluate improved approaches to address maritime boundary disputes across 54 Commonwealth States globally.

“This is an opportunity to help address marine spatial boundary issues on an international platform,” says Jonathan McCue, head of coastal environment at Atkins. “Learning how 21st-century marine sovereignty issues are being addressed on a global level offers valuable insight into how our oceans and seas are likely to be challenged in the future.”

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