OEP CEO speaks on marine protection

OEP CEO Natalie Prosser was a keynote speaker at a Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum event on the future for marine protection in England. 

Her speech, which sets out the OEP’s developing approach to marine protection issues in the context of its wider work, can be found below. 

Hello, and thank you for inviting me to speak today.  Although the OEP’s second birthday is coming in November, I still feel very much feel like the new kid on the block in this vital area of marine protection. You have an impressive panel of experts to hear from today. It is a privilege to be here alongside them. 

As the new kid, I would like to start by setting the scene for us at the OEP, and talk about our broader work to assess progress against the Government’s Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP), which includes, as you will know, commitments to achieve Good environmental status for our seas.

Our role in monitoring and reporting on progress, each year, is key for us at the OEP.

We are required by our enabling legislation to produce an annual report on progress and we did that for the first time earlier this year, just ahead of the Government’s refresh of the EIP.

And what have we found so far? Well, we found some improvements in air quality in recent years. People’s engagement with nature is also up markedly. But using the available data and information, we found many of the other extremely worrying environmental trends still prevailing. 

As far as we could see from the available data, recent progress in protecting, restoring and improving our environment has fallen far short of what is needed. Of 32 trends we assessed across the breadth of the natural environment; nine trends were improving, eleven were static, and eight were deteriorating. Of the 23 environmental targets we assessed, we found that none were demonstrably on track.

I say ‘demonstrably’. Not demonstrably on track. And we use that expression purposefully, because in some areas Government is not able to demonstrate progress or otherwise because of a lack of pertinent measures. Although information about the natural environment is now plentiful, data has not generally been collected or collated with Government’s environmental goals in mind. Years can pass before valuable data are collated and reported. This makes effective policy making and the early evaluation of policy difficult and uncertain when time is so pressing now.

For some years, Government has been developing a system to report environmental outcomes. We welcome that and the significant investment behind it, but completion cannot come soon enough. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has not yet finalised a good number of the indicators to be used to measure progress against the EIP. With pressing targets for biodiversity and species abundance, simple but sufficiently reliable measures, promptly reported and closely aligned now to the new statutory environmental targets and the goals of the newly refreshed EIP are needed urgently, and we are working alongside Defra to improve measurement.

Being sufficiently certain about the present state and environmental trends can be tricky. We do need to get better at it, and it is increasingly necessary as well for Government to look more to the future. We know this is difficult to do, but robust assessments of future states of the environment are ever more necessary, to enable risks to be better managed and to develop timely interventions to correct course where required.

So, much more to be achieved in the field of monitoring and evaluation, and some pressing immediate needs, for Government and for us at the OEP. At the OEP we have identified four areas we need to strengthen over the next five years: improved understanding of drivers and pressures; greater use of forward-looking information and analyses; improved understanding of interlinkages, synergies and trade-offs; and more focus on responses and solutions.

Developing our approach to monitoring Government’s progress is a key focus for us. We have ambitions to build our capacity and capability, develop our knowledge and evidence base, continue our engagement with stakeholders, and make sure our work on the EIP is informed by, and informs, work across our other functions. The EIP is centre stage, for us.

Our analysis for this year’s report is well underway. We are considering how to develop our annual reporting and how we build on the reports each year, to get to a sensible sequence in tune with the five yearly review of the EIP itself. We will assess progress against individual EIP goals, yes, but we also intend to conduct an in-depth assessment of a selected topic each year.

The selected topic for a deep dive for our next reports will be Improving Nature, reflecting the EIP23 apex target of Thriving Plants and Wildlife. Our work here will include analysis of species abundance and nature recovery targets and the plans in place to deliver them. We will be looking for the barriers to progress, and opportunities to do better. We launched a public call for evidence which closed last month and we are now working through the responses.

As well as the individual goal areas, the EIP 2023 identifies cross-cutting themes such as green finance, making green choices, natural capital, new farming schemes and biodiversity net gain. In analysing the overall picture, we will look at progress from these cross-cutting perspectives and consider goal achievement in the wider societal context, so far as we can.

And we will continue to develop the assessment of trends and targets, and of environmental stewardship to assess whether policies are likely to bring about Government’s ambitions. We will also look at important interlinkages across policy domains that affect environmental outcomes and progress towards targets.

In short, we have ambition. We will always focus on our annual progress report – it seems to us so important a contribution – and our ambition is to materially develop our reporting so that we can make the best possible difference to the environment and to Government’s prospects of success, in meeting its ambitions for it.


I would like now to turn to Marine issues and to pick out a few key topics. Marine is another focus for us this year and we will be undertaking a strategic review of marine issues over the autumn. This reflects the extensive broader work underway and planned in this area that we have already heard about today.

Protected Sites

In order to achieve the Environment Act target of 70% of protected sites being in favourable condition by 2042, with the reminder in recovering condition, there is a need to ensure that our existing network of Marine Protected Areas is properly protected. This will require management of all damaging activities by 2024.

I am pleased to say that the government has made a good start. In 2013 the Government introduced the revised approach which identified and introduced fisheries management measures in protected sites inshore of 12 nautical miles. For offshore sites the Fisheries Act 2020 introduced new powers to make bylaws to manage fishing. The Marine Management Organisation is using these powers to introduce fisheries management for the 41 offshore MPAs by the end of 2024.

However there is still a lot of work to do. With bylaws currently in place for only 4 sites, Government needs to maintain the pace of this work to deliver on its consultation and call for evidence for further offshore sites if it is to have the necessary measures in place by 2024.

We have also seen the next steps for the implementation of Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) announced. We see these as essential for responsible ocean stewardship. If implemented effectively they should support the recovery of habitats and species to a more natural state, as well as provide a better understanding of the scope for recovery in the wider marine environment, and a more solid basis from which to assess sustainability and climate change mitigation.

While we welcome the news that the first step in implementing HPMAs is being taken with the designation of three sites, we are disappointed that that number is not higher. Five sites were included in the consultation, and that was also the number recommended by the Benyon Review. We do however understand that Defra has said it will be exploring further sites and we would urge them to do so as quickly as possible.

Marine strategy 

To meet its nature recovery goals the Government can’t rely on site-based protections alone. We need to look after nature across our seas. The UK Marine Strategy (UKMS) provides the framework and commitment to achieve Good Environmental Status (GES) by 2020. As I mentioned earlier the requirement to achieve Good environmental Status under the UK Marine Strategy regulations is a statutory target and also reflects commitments in the 2023 Environmental Improvement Plan. 

Achieving Good Environmental Status is about protecting the marine environment, preventing its deterioration, and restoring it where practical. Assessments take place every 6 years and in 2018 the analysis showed that the UK had only succeeded on 4 out of 15 indicators needed for healthy oceans. 

The next UKMS assessment will be published in 2024 and will be the point at which we know for sure if the 2020 Good Environmental Status target has been met. However, the data emerging from OSPAR suggests it has not been. This review is also the time Government will set new targets for the next cycle of the UK Marine Strategy. And in the Nature Recovery Green Paper consultation last year the government indicated it was looking to revise that strategy.

We await the details of plans for the revision of the UKMS. In our view, any new targets or approach must be realistic, drive action, and have the evidence needed to assess their effectiveness.

Turning now to the Joint Fisheries Statement and Fisheries Management Plans.

We strongly support the government’s ambition to deliver world class, sustainable management of our sea fisheries and marine aquaculture. We were pleased to see that the ecosystem objective in the Fisheries Act embeds for the first time a direct link between fisheries management and the broader UK Marine Strategy.

We did however make several recommendations to suggest strengthening the Joint Fisheries Statement during the conclusion Overall, we felt it lacked the detail needed to deliver government’s ambitions. Commitments are often caveated or overly uncertain. 
The Joint Fisheries Statement lists 43 proposed Fisheries Management Plans (FMPs) that will set out a long-term framework of policy and measures to manage fishing activity to secure the sustainability of stocks and a healthy marine environment. Government is currently consulting on the first 6 frontrunner FMPs.

In our Joint Fisheries Statement consultation response we identified a risk that the policy detail contained within Fisheries Management Plans (FMPs) will deviate from what is necessary to deliver the objectives set out in the Fisheries Act. We are analysing the frontrunner FMPs to ensure they will deliver the commitments in the JFS and ultimately support the achievement of Good Environmental Status.

Marine spatial prioritisation

Our seas are a vital resource and we need to ensure protection of marine habitats and species, whilst also ensuring the marine environment can play its important role in climate change mitigation, and contribute to economic growth and livelihoods. Increasing activity levels from a range of sectors is leading to increasing spatial demands in our seas.  We are aware the Defra and the MMO have developed the cross-Government Marine Spatial Prioritisation programme to respond to these challenges and addresses the management of all activities in English waters and we look forward to receiving more information on this work.


To conclude then, we at the OEP are clear of the importance of our annual EIP monitoring. It has centre stage at the OEP. We are doing all we can to support improvements in the data and information so much needed to form a reliable current view of the state of the environment and also to look forward, to know what works well and where things can be improved. Aside from our monitoring report we have plenty of other matters to focus on, including our developing interest and focus on the marine environment, as hopefully I have been able to start to talk to you about here today. It is an important year for the environment as Defra strives to bring the new EIP to life.

Together, Government, other public authorities, business and wide society have a window of opportunity to turn things around. If we are successful, then future OEP monitoring reports will make for not such dispiriting reading. Government’s efforts must now be squarely focused on delivery, with clear and transparent plans for how it is to achieve its ambitions. We see some encouraging signs, but there is so much more to do.  

Thank you for listening.

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