Turning a third of UK waters into marine reserves may seem like a radical suggestion. But with more than 40 per cent of commercial fish species in the North Atlantic falling below sustainable limits, urgent action is clearly needed.
Last week's Turning the Tide report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) argues that current fisheries policies have failed. Radical change is needed to shift the focus from commercial over-exploitation to long-term protection of the marine environment, the commission believes.
The RCEP's solution will surely appeal to land-use planners. A marine planning system is needed to protect the offshore environment, it insists. But the commission wants the environmental impact of all activities - including wind farms and oil and gas exploration - to be assessed more thoroughly.
Part of its platform is to see marine reserves established within five years. It points out that these could take a relatively short time to bring about huge benefits. A closed area near Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel produced a threefold increase in lobster numbers within 18 months.
Commission chairman Sir Tom Blundell notes that the onshore planning system has operated for more than 50 years to protect areas from development. Similar steps need to be taken at sea, he insists. "It is hard to imagine that we would tolerate a similar scale of destruction on land, but because it happens at sea the damage is largely hidden."
But the commission is not the first to detect a problem. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the RTPI commissioned consultant David Tyldesley to look into the case for introducing a marine planning system, initially in Scotland. Tyldesley found that better planning of the marine environment would have social, economic and environmental benefits.
Blundell argues that marine planning would have to be statutory to be powerful enough to manage rival development pressures. This view is supported by Dr Sharon Thompson, senior marine policy officer at the RSPB. "To have spatial planning that has any teeth at all, we believe it must be statutory," she says.
Regulating any system would be highly complex. Management of the marine environment cuts across the responsibilities of various advisory bodies, devolved administrations and government departments, including DEFRA, the DTI, the Department for Transport, the ODPM and the Ministry of Defence.
Graham U'ren, director of the RTPI in Scotland, says that the principle of a marine spatial planning system is receiving a great deal of support. The RTPI has set up a task group to look at the role of planners in a marine spatial planning system. The next question that needs answering is whether the system should be an extension of the current one or a completely new one.
The answer could be a mixture of both, with the land-use planning system being extended to cover areas just offshore where coastal communities have interests and a new system being created for areas further out to sea. "It might seem strange to use the land planning system at sea, but several aspects would still apply," says U'ren.
The prospect raises many practical issues, such as how to map maritime features and how to define boundaries. But Thompson believes the public would soon fall into step behind a marine planning system capable of dealing with potential conflicts between environmentalists and users of the sea, at as early a stage as possible.
"This is a real win-win situation. We believe there are time and money benefits if businesses know which areas they will be able to get consent in. I think everyone is aware that this is an issue that has resonance for their industry, but it depends on the constraints put on their business as to how they react to it."
Turning the Tide can be viewed via www.PlanningResource.co.uk.