As Chairperson of the Assembly Committee for the Environment I am delighted to see, at last, a Northern Ireland Marine Bill being introduced to the Assembly. This has been a long time coming - leaving us sadly behind the rest of the UK in putting legislation in place to protect our seas.
The Bill has three main components; the introduction of marine planning; improved management for marine nature conservation; and the streamlining of marine licensing.
Marine planning will be new in Northern Ireland so I am glad to see that the Bill requires the Department of the Environment to prepare, consult on and publish a marine plan; and to let people know how and when it will engage with interested persons in preparing the marine plan. This will allow interested parties to get involved at an early stage and help shape the plan, which will hopefully ensure that the planning process runs more smoothly.
The Bill will also give powers to the Department to designate marine conservation zones and to create byelaws to protect these areas. As part of its examination of the Bill the Committee will be keen to know what financial burden these additional functions will add both to Government and to those affected by the legislation. It would not be beneficial to implement legislation that we cannot afford to implement or which prices our marine industries out of business.
We will also be seeking a proper timeline for implementation of the Bill. We cannot allow it to take years for the Department to implement the Bill once it has been passed by the Assembly (as has happened with a number of other Bills); we need to see it being implemented as quickly as possible.
As those in the industry will know marine functions are currently spread over several departments. The idea of a marine management organisation was considered for this Bill but ultimately not included. Instead there is a proposal to streamline some of the licensing processes. However, in the absence of a marine management organisation the Committee will want to know how marine functions will be coordinated and managed across government departments. We are aware that there is an inter departmental marine co-ordination group in existence but the proof of the success of this approach will be delivery of comprehensive protection of our seas while maximising its economic and social potential.
As well as ensuring that government departments work together to implement the Bill we need to ensure that local councils are also engaged. While marine planning will be the responsibility of NI Government, it will need to liaise closely with councils to ensure compatibility with land based planning (which is due to be devolved to local councils), particularly where there is an overlap of responsibilities.
The Committee wants to hear the views of any interested organisation or individual on the detailed proposals of this Bill including if you feel there should be something in it that isn’t. So, whether you are a fisherman, an off-shore wind developer, a council or even just someone who has firm views on how our seas should be managed, I encourage you to send your comments to the Committee.
Anna Lo is Chair of the Assembly Committee for the Environment. For more information on the Committee’s work on the Marine Bill, and where to send your submission visit the Assembly website here.
The Committee will welcome written submissions on the Marine Bill until 27 April 2012.