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UK government moves forward with marine net gain plans

Offshore wind and other marine developments such as port expansion projects may have to comply with additional measures under UK government proposals setting out marine net gain (MNG) requirements in English waters.

The proposals set out the aims of MNG, which refers to leaving marine environments in a measurably better state than before a development has started. However, it is important that these additional requirements do not detract or distract from the ongoing work of nature conservation bodies and the renewable energy industry to deliver habitats compensatory measures to unlock the UK’s offshore wind power development an expert said. 

Existing challenges include the need for projects to secure consent by satisfying the requirements of the habitats regulation assessment (HRA) – for example, delivering compensatory measures for impacts on protected seabird species. The Energy Act 2023 (419 pages/4,678 KB), which came into force in October, helps to clarify ways in which these obligations may be discharged to help wind projects go ahead but there are some concerns the new requirements for MNG will result in further uncertainty. 

Amy Stirling, renewable energy expert at Pinsent Masons, said: “While developers in the marine environment are no doubt supportive of marine net gain, there is a real risk this becomes a distraction from the very real and live difficulties the industry is facing on the HRA front, and which the Energy Act 2023 only recently seeks to make provision to deal with.”

“It is vital that the introduction of MNG does not detract from removing HRA compensatory measures as a barrier to the consent and deployment of offshore wind projects. As recognised in the recently published updated National Policy Statement EN-3, offshore wind is critical national priority infrastructure and these difficulties associated with HRA should not be underestimated.”

The new measures will make MNG mandatory for all new marine developments. Net gain allows for the protection, restoration or creation of environmental features that are of greater ecological value to wildlife, habitats and people than any losses associated with the new development.

MNG will apply to developers regardless of whether their scheme is consented via Development Consent Order (DCO), Harbour Order or marine licensing regimes, with developers able to comply with MNG measures by doing things such as using building structures that are more friendly to marine life.

The consultation response shows the government’s commitment to “help put us on the path to nature’s recovery”, aiming to reverse the loss of marine biodiversity and, when practicable, restore it. The measures are likely to be “contributions based” with further work to be undertaken to explore the applicability of biodiversity metrics. 

It is widely acknowledged that the requirement to secure compensation presents a significant challenge to the delivery of sufficient offshore renewable generating capacity to meet the government’s targets – most notably, of increasing offshore wind generation capacity to 50GW by 2030. As the Energy Bill factsheet for offshore wind explains, the “significant delays” arising in the consenting process are “primarily caused by the complexity of environmental impacts of developments and requirement for novel compensatory measures to be developed”. 

In the latest response, the government aims to ensure that there is no overlap between MNG and existing compensatory measures, seeking to draw boundaries between the two. However, Stirling said that this distinction assumes that the HRA compensatory measures can be agreed as ensuring “no net loss”, therefore enabling MNG to provide additional gain. 

She said: “This unfortunately does not reflect the reality of the difficulties marine developers are grappling with – offshore wind developers are routinely asked to provide HRA measures which, because of the use of compensation ratio, are of an order magnitude greater than their worst-case precautionary predicted impact.”

“It is unclear how a cut off point for ‘no net loss’ transitioning into ‘gain’ to discharge MNG obligations will be able to be identified and clear and pragmatic guidance is required before MNG becomes mandated,” said Stirling.

Both site level and strategic MNG will be considered, including active interventions from developers and pressure reduction measures where these can offer opportunities for ecosystem recovery. The government will also consider whether fisheries pressure reduction measure can deliver net gain where strategic benefit can be demonstrated. There is a longer term aim to localise benefits of MNG to the location of development.

An assessment framework for MNG is yet to be developed and there will be further consultation with stakeholders before implementation. 

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