In Practice: Planning for Scotland’s Seas

21 Jul 2015

For decades now, Scotland has managed activities within its seas, such as renewables, oil and gas development and aquaculture, through separate, sector-specific planning guidance – but now things are changing. Serious declines in the health of our marine environment as a result of human activities at sea and around our coasts became an urgent driver for a much more coordinated approach to management. Following ground-breaking legislation (the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010), the Scottish Government developed the first National Marine Plan (NMP), which serves as a definitive statutory guide on how to plan developments at sea, to conserve and enhance the marine environment, reduce conflict and simplify current systems. The novel challenge of marine planning is not just to prevent further decline but to enable ecological recovery, whilst guiding development. Since the Plan’s adoption in March, the focus is now shifting to its urgent delivery via a series of Regional Marine Planning Partnerships (RMPPs), each with their own regional plan over the coming years.

But what does this actually mean for Scotland’s planning culture? Marine spatial planning is an emerging discipline defined by UNESCO as ‘a public process of analysing and allocating the spatial and temporal distribution of human activities in marine areas to achieve ecological, economic, and social objectives that usually have been specified through a political process.’ It is something of an unknown quantity to scientists and planners alike – not least because much of the area requiring management lies underwater and is not easily seen or surveyed. There is therefore simply less of the data required to inform good planning compared to the interlinked terrestrial system.

There is also a growing awareness of marine environmental issues in Scotland, with many community interests seeking to be proactively involved in the management of their local sea area. How do planners go about communicating complex policy processes to interested members of the public who wish to participate, but don’t always know where to start? This presents an overlapping challenge to the Scottish Government’s stated ‘Community Empowerment’ agenda currently in the Parliamentary pipeline.

The challenges we now face for effective implementation of the NMP in Scotland are inevitably the same as those for terrestrial planning 50 years ago, but in that respect we have the opportunity to learn from those processes and apply principles of good practice to marine planning. Significantly increased resourcing will be needed to support regional plans and those with the responsibility to develop and deliver them. This will mean ensuring the Marine Planning Partnerships and local authorities have access to the right expertise, funding, data and tools to make informed and appropriate decisions about developments in the sea. There is also an urgent need to improve mechanisms for cross-boundary collaboration, not only across political and geographical boundaries, but also between terrestrial and marine areas, as activities in either domain have the potential to affect the other. Communities, particularly in coastal areas, must be part of the planning process and significant awareness-raising efforts are required to improve the level of understanding of marine issues so that our communities can be effective agents within the planning system.

Above all, the principles of sustainable development must underpin the development of marine plans, with environmental protection and enhancement the key focus, to ensure the protection of our seas and the flow of goods and services they provide for future generations.

Esther Brooker, Marine Policy Officer, Scottish Environment LINK
Published in Scottish Planner, Summer Issue/#162/June 2015

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