The North Sea Report | Lord Greaves | House of Lords
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to speak to the Motion and the report introduced by my noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market. I congratulate her and the whole committee on a high-quality report. It has gone into the subject of the North Sea basin as a whole in great depth and breadth, covered a number of disciplines and asked some very pertinent questions of the Government—not all of which the Government have satisfactorily answered.
Reading the report took me back to many happy hours—days and nights, I think—spent in this Chamber on the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, as it then was. We were breaking new ground in a number of areas, particularly marine planning. There had not really been a marine planning regime before that Act came into force. It is interesting, reading the report, to see how far it has got—perhaps not as far as we had hoped. It also took me back to large amounts of time I spent when I was much younger taking holidays on the Yorkshire coast, on the North Sea coast, particularly at Filey—but perhaps that is for another day.
One theme that comes through the report is the fundamental need for co-operation between countries and communities and what I suppose people might call stakeholders—the users of the North Sea—all around the North Sea basin. This is one area where the report is particularly critical; it points out that the only existing cross-border body is the North Sea Commission, which is formed of local authorities. For funding reasons, English local authorities along the North Sea coast have withdrawn from that body, which is surely not a good thing. Far be it from me, as a member of a local authority responsible for overseeing the finances of that local authority, to criticise councils when they find that their present financial circumstances are such that they really have to cut back on everything except the most essential things. If they have to choose between serious cuts in social care, for example, or cutting rural bus services or closing libraries and being a member of a European, North Sea-wide body, it is not difficult to see why they make the decision that they do. But surely it is not good. The summary of the report says:
“As the responsibility for the marine environment lies at a local, an EU and an international level, we urge the UK Government to work with English local authorities to identify and address barriers to their co-operation with other authorities around the North Sea”.
“The Government believes that it is for each local authority to determine whether or not the costs associated with membership of the North Sea Commission or any other forum represents value for money and adds value to existing structures through which local authorities can collaborate on economic development such as LEPs”.
That is a very unsatisfactory response, because local authorities might well take the view—and probably do take the view—that it would be value for money and add value to existing structures, but they do not have the money to do it. This is the kind of response that we get increasingly from this Government to local authorities across a whole series of areas—that local priorities are for local authorities. But if you do not have any money, your priorities may be the same but the level at which you can fund them goes down. They talk in a way that shows they misunderstand the issue; they talk about the coastal concordat, which was launched in England,
Those bodies will not really be able to organise co-operation across the North Sea with partners in Holland, Denmark or Norway. It is a totally unsatisfactory answer, which suggests that it is just a brush-off from the Government.
One thing that we were very conscious about when we saw the Marine and Coastal Access Bill through your Lordships’ House was that we were setting up a new marine planning process—a new framework, to include both licensing, or development control, and a proper strategic planning of shared space through local marine plans. One of the disappointments of the marine planning system has been how long it has taken to get those plans into place. Planning is often regarded as a hindrance, but it is a positive thing; in the economic sphere it provides predictability for investment and in the environmental sphere it provides a reliable and firm framework and basis for proper ecological controls. We were very aware that it needed to be coherent and comprehensive. One innovation from the Marine and Coastal Access Act were marine conservation zones. Another disappointment is the slow progress and relatively small number of those zones that have been created. The first tranche was based on an initial series of recommendations to the Government by people who knew what they were doing—the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and Natural England—for 127 MCZs. However, the first tranche was only 27, and there is now a consultation, out since the beginning of this year, for another tranche, but the total number being looked at is only 23, which would be much less than half the number that was expected. My question for the Government is whether they think the number and extent of those zones will be sufficient to provide the coherent ecological network.