Strategy gives hope to marine protection

It is not often that the behaviour of the basking shark offers a reason for a new planning system, but then we live in curious times. Given the bewildering number of changes to all of the UK nations' planning systems in recent years, planners could be forgiven for groaning at the prospect of another layer of regulation on the horizon.

But the Marine Bill promised in May's Queen's speech is needed now more than ever. While this may not enjoy the same priority in government circles as education or smoking bans, the Environment Agency's warning on the state of our seas deserves wider attention. There is more to this than the predicted chaos from climate change, associated sea level rises and heightened flood risk, awful as these problems will be.

Marine ecosystems are changing, forcing animals like the basking shark to migrate north and feed in Scottish waters. Fish stocks are falling to such an extent that plaice and cod are growing more slowly and maturing at a younger age. According to the agency, the outlook for a range of marine indicators is at best uncertain and in some cases getting rapidly worse. If this was a diagnosis, the patient would be heading for intensive care. The present approach to our seas has not only failed but has proved counterproductive.

Opportunities to get something right with lasting effect are rare. The introduction of local development frameworks and regional spatial strategies offers a chance to put tackling climate change at the centre of the planning system. Marine legislation offers a similar opportunity to get the management and protection of our seas right.

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