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Ministers must urgently reform our marine planning system this Marine Super Year

In the third of a series of blogs launching the Wildlife and Countryside Link 2021 Marine Scorecard for Defra, RSPB Marine Policy Officer Jacques Villemot explains why we need reform of our offshore planning system to ensure that new developments are delivered in harmony with nature

April 2021

In 2019, the UK Government passed laws to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Reaching these targets requires a significant change in our energy system and offshore wind will play a crucial role in this transition.

Indeed, in 2020, the Prime Minister announced the ambitious target of 40GW of offshore wind energy by 2030 (which could even rise to 100GW by 2050). 40GW represents the commissioning of an extra 30GW of capacity in the next ten years, three times as much as that installed in the previous decade, with the rate of installation predicted to equate to one new turbine every weekday for the whole of the 2020s.

While our energy system is beginning a welcome transition to renewables, the English planning system has not been updated to accommodate the UK’s increased climate ambitions. Urgent action is needed to ensure the necessary expansion of offshore wind is compatible with nature, climate and people by providing a roadmap to both healthy seas and net zero.

The impacts of poorly planned offshore wind on biodiversity

Both during construction and operation, offshore wind can harm marine biodiversity and habitats, including the seabed, cetaceans and seabirds. These impacts include wildlife collisions with turbines, disturbances (including underwater noise), direct habitat loss, the blocking of important flight and migratory pathways (barrier effect) and loss of access to preferred foraging areas (displacement).

Research suggests that offshore wind has already negatively impacted the densities and distributions of guillemots and kittiwakes breeding in the southern North Sea. The RSPB has also highlighted concerns with schemes in waters adjacent to seabird breeding colonies of global importance such as the Hornsea projects by the Flamborough and Filey Coast Special Protection Area (SPA) in North Yorkshire and the Forth and Tay windfarms by the Outer Firth of Forth and St Andrews Bay SPA in Scotland. More monitoring and research is needed as both individually (e.g. one windfarm) and cumulatively (e.g. multiple windfarms) these developments threaten irreversible nature losses.

The shortcomings of marine planning in England

The challenges now facing offshore wind deployment are a symptom of poor planning and the failure of the UK Government to address the degraded state of our seas, already subject to decades of pressure from human activity including development and fishing. To start tackling these issues, there must be a strategic and ecosystem-based approach to how activities and developments are planned offshore, so they’re delivered in the most suitable location.

The Marine Policy Statement (MPS) provides the framework for Marine Plans in the UK. A key objective of the statement is to ensure a sustainable marine environment, promoting healthy ecosystems and protecting marine habitats and species. However, the UK has failed to achieve Good Environmental Status at sea. While urgently needing to expand marine renewables, it is clear urgent revisions to the planning system are needed to deliver the ecological ambitions and the objectives of the MPS.

To truly provide a framework to delivering the Government’s net zero targets whilst supporting ocean recovery, the marine planning system must become:

  • Strategic: Following an ecosystem-based approach, ensuring that the collective pressures of human activities are compatible with achieving Good Environmental Status, it must establish a clear hierarchy between policies and activities, with climate and nature as the top priorities
  • Holistic: Cross-departmental action from Government is needed, so all marine activities and uses are included, and nature protection, recovery and enhancement must be considered as part of each of them
  • Spatial: Using the best available evidence, the plans need to identify which areas are suitable for each activity (e.g. offshore wind in the least ecologically sensitive areas).

A year of opportunity

The good news is there is room to implement meaningful change to the planning system this year. 2021 will be the year of the publication of four new marine plans for England. This will mean that, for the first time, every marine area in England will be covered by a plan. Coincidentally, the East Marine Plan, the first to be published in England, was reviewed last year and declared in need of an update.

With Environment Minister Rebecca Pow declaring 2021 to be a ‘Marine Super Year’ and calling for the UK’s global leadership to start “with our ambition and delivery at home”, the government must use this opportunity to commit to a new generation of marine plans truly suited to deliver its ambitions for both net zero and healthy seas.

Jacques Villemot is a Marine Policy Officer at RSPB Follow: @RSPBEngland

To read the Marine Scorecard report click here. The scorecard is supported by Buglife, Greenpeace, the Institute of Fisheries Management, the Marine Conservation Society, ORCA, RSPB, RSPCA, Surfers Against Sewage, WDC, The Wildlife Trusts, WWT, and WWF

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.