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The Government’s flagship Highly Protected Marine Area programme is stalling, here’s how to get things back on track

New Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) would provide the highest levels of protection for the marine environment, helping restore our degraded seas. However, nearly four years since work started to develop the HPMA concept, not a single site has been designated. With Ministers now committed to “explore additional sites this year” and with any future sites also subject to consultation, Wildlife and Countryside Link's Marine Group Chair Kirsten Carter, reflects on how the programme can avoid past mistakes and deliver these vital new sites.

April 2023

Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) are the Government’s flagship reform for improving the marine environment. Indeed, in the recent Environmental Improvement Plan, the Government highlighted its ambition to “create Highly Protected Marine Areas to allow sites to fully recover” as one of the “key policies that will deliver our apex biodiversity target”.

The desperate need for stronger marine protections has been highlighted in the recent ecological collapses in the North East of England’s seas, where the highly degraded nature of the marine environment meant that additional stresses caused die offs of entire populations; devastating both nature and the local fishing sector.

Lord Benyon concluded in his 2020 HPMA review that this new designation would go further than existing MPAs, which safeguard specific features or habitats within their boundaries, by taking a ‘whole site approach’ and by only permitting activities which have very little or no impact within them, such as vessel transit, kayaking and scuba diving.

We need a network of HPMAs to help restore our seas. They would allow ecological processes to recover and re-establish themselves, providing a benchmark against which to assess progress of other marine protections across our seas and contributing to the urgent objectives of halting species decline and addressing the climate crisis.


However, nearly four years on from the start of the Benyon Review, which began developing the HPMA concept, not a single site has been designated. While three sites are set for designation this summer, this is a hugely disappointing drop in ambition and falls short of the five pilot sites deemed the ‘bare minimum’ by Lord Benyon in his final report.

The programme has faced challenges in designating its initial sites which resulted in two proposed sites not being taken forward for designation. Most notable has been the backlash against the proposed Lindisfarne HPMA off the coast of Northumberland. The designation of this site wasn't helped by poor data on local fishing activities provided by Defra, which angered the local community. Media coverage highlighted a sense of anger over the proposed restrictions on fishers’ livelihoods which was seen by some as being imposed by a distant bureaucracy. The proposed site at Inner Silver Pit South was also dropped after minor industry opposition.


So, with Ministers now committed to “explore additional sites this year” and with “any future sites also subject to consultation”, this is the perfect time to assess how the programme can better deliver on its goals and avoid repeating past mistakes. For the next round of sites we recommend that Defra:

  • Bring forward more sites to consultation. It is inevitable that new, potentially unforeseen concerns will arise about sites during the consultation process. Therefore it is unclear why, of the 30 potential HPMA sites identified by Natural England and JNCC based on ecological criteria, only 5 sites were put forward for consultation - the bare minimum recommended by the Benyon Review to pilot HPMAs. Then, even though these 5 were judged to have the least impact on the fishing industry, 2 were still dropped due to industry opposition. Going forward, significantly more sites should be brought forward for future rounds of consultation and designation.
  • Improved consultation processes. There are many examples of best practice in delivering new marine protections which progress with support and active engagement from the local community; Lamlash Bay on the Isle of Arran provides a particularly good case study. It is clear that effective consultation requires sufficient resources and a better use of established networks. For example, there are coastal community partnerships which should have been involved from the outset and who could have helped contribute data/knowledge, put forward sites with community support, and have helped anticipate, advise on and helped find solutions to any potential problems at an earlier stage of the policy development. It was clear during last year’s consultation process that Defra needed local champions for the programme, who could explain the exciting positive goals and outcomes HPMA designation could achieve. This should be coupled with the best possible data (including from local IFCAs) that communities can rely on.
  • Funding for a just transition. The funding suggested by Defra for those affected by proposed HPMAs was inadequate. While only a small number of fishers were due to be impacted, and in the longer term HPMAs should help a flourishing sustainable fishing sector through the spillover effect, these local concerns dominated media coverage. On land, the Government has set out how farmers could receive up to £100,000 to leave the industry in a managed way. However, with HPMAs, the Government has been unable to offer more than adaption and mitigation funding through the Fisheries and Seafood Scheme. Additional funding may require reforms which are beyond the scope of the current HPMA programme, however Ministers must address how to manage the transition of those whose livelihoods will be immediately impacted. A just transition strategy must form part of wider marine spatial prioritisation work.
  • A plan for HPMAs and the wider MPA network. With the Marine Management Organisation progressing its programme to restrict damaging fishing activity in English offshore MPAs; the Government committed to meeting Good Environmental Status in our seas; and the commitment for the development of 50GW of offshore wind by 2030, we need a plan of how HPMAs fit into a wider vision for our seas. It is currently unclear what the bigger picture ambition is for HPMAs and the wider strategy for their placement. We want to see a plan as part of marine spatial prioritisation for the expansion of HPMAs across different seas and a range of both inshore and offshore sites. With Scotland committed to designate 10% of its seas in HPMAs, we need at least the same ambition in English seas. Putting an exciting, ambitious vision in place will also help bring stakeholders on board and allow early consideration and management of future challenges, rather than reactively responding to opposition.

The environment sector has strongly supported HPMAs throughout their development, with thousands of supporters backing the plans for new sites. With this programme having delivered only 3 sites since the start of the review process in 2019, and with only around 8% of England’s waters currently effectively protected for nature, it is vital that this key policy evolves at speed. This requires support for site designations as part of a wider, cohesive network of properly managed sites which can deliver in fulfilling the UK’s marine 30x30 ambition (with HPMAs covering an absolute minimum of 10% of our seas) - over the coming months and years.

Kirsten Carter is the Wildlife and Countryside Link Marine Group Chair and Principal Policy Officer (Marine) at RSPB. 

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