All At Sea


Cornwall is bigger than Wessex. Yes or no? It depends on definitions. Land area is one thing, but there are some rights of sovereignty that extend out to the 200-mile limit of the Continental Shelf. And it’s not just sovereign states who have clearly demarcated areas of seabed to their name. So do the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. So would Cornwall and Wessex if they too had devolution. Our area takes in half the width of the Bristol Channel, from Marsland Mouth upwards, and half the width of the English Channel, from Plymouth to Portsmouth. Cornwall is everything to the west and so, it’s true, is bigger than Wessex. With marine resources that dwarf its land area.

Seabed sovereignty means that geopolitics doesn’t stop at the shoreline; Britain is not an island in these terms but shares borders with France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and certain Nordic countries, as well as Ireland. Wessex has a boundary with Brittany and Normandy (and the Channel Islands) that is longer than its boundary with the rest of England. Since those regions are also keen to develop the economic potential of their seas, there ought to be huge opportunities for hi-tech industries in Wessex to seek business there.  For their part, Cornwall and Plymouth Councils are already pushing.

Within these areas at sea, all kinds of things happen. There are large islands – Lundy, Steep Holm, Brownsea, Wight – and many smaller rocks. There are cables and pipelines in the seabed, dredging and drilling, fishing, sealife, recreation, navigation, naval exercises and, increasingly, installations to capture energy. The most optimistic estimates tell us that tidal, wave and offshore wind resources around the British Isles are sufficient to meet all our electricity needs by the end of the century (provided we use the power wisely).

To help such activities co-exist without conflict, the Marine & Coastal Access Act 2009 set up a streamlined system for planning and licensing the use of the marine environment – from below the seabed, on the seabed and up through the water column to the surface. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland this system is part of the devolved administration’s remit. The Scottish Government has been vigorous in applying it to develop a renewables industry to take the place of North Sea oil. England has the Marine Management Organisation, based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, its plan-making work moving slowly round the coast, priority area by priority area, with parts of Wessex maybe another nine years away yet. As for the consents regime, it can take up to four years to process a Harbour Revision Order.

Things are rather different in Wales. There the Welsh Government is sorting out its environmental powers, with many soon to be vested in a single new natural resources body, and forging ahead. Those concerned with our own marine environment may need to deal with as many as five different bodies. We have the Marine Management Organisation (Newcastle), Natural England (Sheffield), the Environment Agency (Bristol), the Devon & Severn Inshore Fisheries & Conservation Authority (Brixham), and the Southern Inshore Fisheries & Conservation Authority (Poole). The next step after unifying these on a regional basis would be to devolve the Crown Estate Commissioners, the body that rents out the seabed and pockets the money for the London regime. It’s a priority for the Scottish Government. It would make sense in Wales too. And Wessex. If simply being English didn’t disqualify us, in the eyes of the decision-makers, from doing things so sensibly.

Just why so many English folk think that effective, efficient government is such a dreadful idea is something we’ll need to explore in future posts. The roots of an explanation lie in the centuries when absolute monarchs ruled the world, hanging, beheading and burning all who queried the views held by those at the top. But in 2012?

All the arguments against regions in England are deeply, deeply irrational. Regionalism is ‘un-English’? More like un-Norman. (How can Wessex be un-English?) Regionalism plays into the hands of Brussels? So we do without good government because the continentals have it? (The EU is a club of nation-states, with no enduring interest in promoting regions.) Regionalism will mean more bureaucracy? Scotland and Wales show the opposite: the reorganisation of environmental work in Wales is expected to deliver benefits worth £158 million over the next 10 years. (Regional administration in England already exists in many fields – it’s a fact of geography – but devolution leads to even more streamlined, cheaper, faster and better decision-making.)

The experience of our marine environment ought to be a warning. Never grumble about the incompetence of the London regime if you’re unwilling to work to replace it with a now proven alternative.

Happy King Alfred’s Day.

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