The arrival today of the first ever marine plan for Wales is a significant moment in the history of our maritime nation. Traditionally, the approach taken to marine management has been manage the needs of each sector (fishing, energy, tourism, energy) separately. The Welsh National Marine Plan is our attempt to move beyond this.
Instead, it aims to bring users together. To look at an area of sea for its environmental, social, cultural and economic qualities, and decide collectively how it should be used. From now on, if you have to decide where to put a wind farm, where a shipping lane could harmoniously co-exist with an important area for dolphins and porpoises, or where you could safely extract gravel for house-building, the marine plan should be the first place to look for guidance on where or how to do it.
Many years in the making
The Wales Plan has been a long time in the making. When the process began I was but a fresh faced employee at the Countryside Council for Wales (as it was then known) back in 2009, advising the Welsh Government on its initial approach to marine planning.
Eight years and a few grey hairs have passed to get us to where we are today. The process has led to much head scratching, many robust discussions, redrafts and stakeholder engagement. During the same period, Welsh seas have become busier than ever, as the recent Future Trends work for the Celtic Seas Partnership has shown.
We’re not alone but we are unique
Wales is not alone in making a long term plan for its seas. Scotland, England and Northern Ireland also have plans at various stages of development – some ahead of us, some behind. This is thanks to the work of the European Commission in driving this agenda forward; an agenda for which the UK has established a world leading reputation.
What makes Wales different is the role our unique Well-being of Future Generations Act and Environment Act have in shaping how our Plan is developed and implemented. For example, thanks to reporting for the Acts, we know that no ecosystem in Wales is said to be resilient. To maximise our contribution to Wales’ well-being, the Welsh Government have an obligation to maintain and enhance the resilience of our marine ecosystems. The policies of the final Plan must sufficiently reflect this.
Given these requirements, and the efforts made to get us to this point, the big risk after so much time is that the plan simply states what’s going on at the moment, rather than seek to create positives. Worse still, we could get a Plan that encourages yet more development in a drive for economic growth, rather than ensuring genuine prosperity for all.
To its credit, Welsh Government has led an open process with all stakeholders to get to this stage. The launch of today’s consultation will attempt to define a vision of what Welsh waters should look like in 20 years from now, and set out a pathway to get us there.
Marine planning, however, is just a tool. As such, the value of marine planning heavily depends on what the plan-makers, in this case Welsh Government, want to achieve. We have campaigned for marine plans for over 15 years because, when implemented properly, they base decisions on the needs of our precious ecosystems. This reduces harm, by guiding activities away from sensitive locations and seasons.
Our role in Wales
We will carefully scrutinise the Wales National Marine Plan to see whether it meets our tests of what a good plan should look like.
One key area for us will be the Plan’s proposals for “strategic resource areas” (or SRAs). These attempt to map potential locations for future activities, such as energy generation and aggregates. The risk is that, if these areas aren’t sufficiently based on environmental sensitivities, they will guide activities into vulnerable habitats; potentially causing irreparable environmental damage, conflict, and jeopardising the viability of future projects.
The Plan presents an opportunity to avoid these impacts before they occur, rather than kicking the can down the road. This opportunity must not be missed.
Marine Governance Programme Manager
WWF UK (living in Cardiff)