Final debates on Marine Bill

Turbines-calm-sea The debate over regulating the sea restarts as the Bill enters its final stages.

Northern Ireland’s Marine Bill is moving towards its conclusion with the Alliance Party renewing its call for a single marine management organisation for the province.

The Marine Bill aims to streamline offshore planning and the legislation is needed to bring Northern Ireland’s policy into line with Great Britain. The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 mainly covered England and Wales and a similar Marine (Scotland) Act was enacted in March 2010.

Legislation was delayed in the last Assembly term, due to the evolving law in Great Britain and the frequent changes in ministers at the DoE. As Environment Minister, Edwin Poots approved a consultation on the Bill in April 2010, which concluded that July. The Executive authorised the Bill in December 2010 but progress was then delayed by the Assembly election.

SDLP Environment Minister Alex Attwood presented the Bill to the Assembly on 21 February 2012 and it passed its second stage, without a vote, on 5 March. The Bill covers the Northern Ireland inshore region i.e. out to 12 miles from the high water mark and back up every estuary, river or channel as far as the tide flows.

It requires the DoE to prepare marine plans for all parts of the inshore region, which must comply with the UK-wide Marine Policy Statement. The department can also designate marine conservation zones to conserve species of flora and fauna or their habitats.

A licensing system for construction, dredging and waste disposal has already been established in the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009.

The Crown Estate would continue to own the seabed and lease zones to renewable energy companies. The DoE has the final say as the consenting authority. Under the Bill, decisions on offshore electricity generation licences rest with DETI but the procedure for such a licence will run in parallel with that for the marine licence.

Attwood sought to include an independent marine management organisation (MMO) in the Bill but the DUP opposed the move, claiming that this would create extra bureaucracy. The other Executive parties are supportive and say that an MMO would improve efficiency.

The Environment Committee published its report on the Bill on 5 July 2012. It suggested a statutory requirement for “agreement and co-ordination” between departments on marine matters.

Following a committee recommendation, the DoE agreed to double the time limit for appeals against marine plans, from six weeks to 12 weeks. The department also agreed to oblige public bodies to explain, in writing, why they have failed to comply with their duties in a marine conservation zone.

Alliance MLA Anna Lo has brought forward two further amendments, one in a party political capacity and another as Chair of the Assembly’s Environment Committee.

The first amendment would establish an MMO, which would take on the marine-related functions currently carried out by five departments (DARD, DCAL, DETI, DoE and DRD), the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

Lo’s second amendment would give the department a duty to formally consider the impact on fisheries and other activities if an area were designated as a marine conservation zone. Six technical amendments will also be brought forward by the Minister.

The Bill’s consideration stage was scheduled to take place on 30 April and the Minister hopes to gain royal assent by the summer.

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