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Legislation and Duties

The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 (Habitats Regulations) protect nature through two main mechanisms: the network of habitats sites, which contribute to the conservation of the natural habitat types and species identified in the Annexes of the Habitats Directives; and the protection of specific animal and plant species wherever they occur. As a matter of government policy, Ramsar sites, designated under the Ramsar Convention on wetlands of International importance, are given the same protection as habitats sites.

Natural England have produced a marine recreation toolkit that summaries the roles and responsibilities of authorities with regard to managing recreational activities.

Competent and Relevant Authorities

The Habitats Regulations refer to two different types of statutory organisations which have certain responsibilities within European marine sites. They are known as competent and relevant authorities. The term competent authorities includes any statutory body or public office exercising legislative powers, whether on land or sea. Relevant authorities are those competent authorities which have powers or functions which have, or could have, an impact on the marine area within or adjacent to a European marine site. Defra have produced guidance for competent authorities on the habitats regulations.

Public authorities in England have a duty to have regard to conserving biodiversity as part of policy or decision making. Conserving biodiversity can include restoring or enhancing a population or habitat.

Role of Key Authorities

The MMO have published guidance on the role of key authorities relating to of Marine Non-Licensable Activities in England. A summary is set out below:

The Marine Management Organisation

Under section 129 of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, the MMO may make one or more byelaws for the purpose of furthering the conservation objectives stated for a Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ) in England. Byelaw making powers include “prohibiting or restricting entry into, or any movement or other activity within the MCZ” and “prohibiting or restricting the anchoring of any vessel within the MCZ” . The MMO also has the powers to make emergency and interim byelaw where there is an urgent need to protect a site.

Natural England

Natural England is responsible for promoting nature conservation and protecting biodiversity, including ensuring that the network of habitats sites is appropriately maintained or restored to a favourable condition. It is responsible for the designation and management of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). It is a statutory conservation advisor to Government for inshore areas (0-12nm), develops conservation objectives, publishes advice on operations and activities and undertakes site condition assessments. Information on specific sites can be accessed via the Designated Sites System.

Natural England may make byelaws to protect Sites of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSIs) under  the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It can request a Special Nature Conservation Order (SNCO) from the Secretary of State to protect the natural features of EMS from damage. Where an SNCO is in place, Natural England can serve a 'stop notice' on behalf of the minister, which is a legal notice, informing the recipient that they must not carry out a particular activity. Natural England also has byelaw powers for intertidal Sites of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and National Nature Reserves. They have pyblished an agreed model for making a SSSI byelaw.

Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities

Under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCAs) have the powers to make byelaws in their district. IFCA powers cover the exploitation of sea fisheries resources which includes recreational fishing activities such as sea angling and bait digging.

Harbour Authorities

Whilst most Harbour Authorities are limited to make byelaws for navigation, some Conservancies have a wider remit including conservation. Some harbour authorities can restrict which parts of their harbour are available for navigation, however, this may depend on their powers laid out in the Harbour Revision Order or Harbour Empowerment Order. The power to impose restrictions for nature conservation rather than navigational purposes again varies between harbour authorities.

Local Authorities

(District Councils and London Borough Councils) have the authority to make and amend byelaws relating to the 'seashore' . This includes activities such as access and dog walking. Under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, public authorities must take any authorisation or enforcement decision in accordance with the appropriate marine policy documents (Marine Plan where present, otherwise the Marine Policy Statement). In general, Local Authorities are responsible for decisions down to the mean low water mark. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and Conservation of Habitats and Species Act 2010 also place legal duties on the Council where it is a landowner. 

Summary table of roles and responsibilities of key authorities in relation to MPA management


Roles and responsibilities regarding MPA management


  • Provide overall MPA management policy framework

Natural England

  • Statutory conservation advisor to Government for inshore areas (0-12nm)

  • Development of advice on conservation objectives and operations/activities (EMS and MCZs)

  • Public access (coastal paths)

  • Management of SSSIs


  • Statutory conservation advisor to Government and Devolved Administrations for offshore areas (12-200nm)

  • Development of advice on conservation objectives and operations/activities (offshore EMS and MCZs)


  • An executive non-departmental pubic body sponsored by Defra

  • Licence, regulate and plan marine activities in the seas around England

  • Powers to make byelaws to control activities to protect MPAs which do not require a marine licence including fisheries and recreation

Local Authorities

  • Management of (non-permissible) development (down to Low Water Mark)

  • Management of recreation activities (within area of responsibility)

  • Planning authority (interface between marine and terrestrial)

  • Beach management and maintenance

Harbour Authorities

  • Can manage access restrictions, speeds and general activities within the Harbour Authorities area of jurisdiction.


  • Powers to make byelaws to control fishing activities to protect MPAs, including recreational fishing activities such as sea angling and bait digging.

National Parks

  • Promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of National Parks.


Source: Natural England Managing Marine Recreational Activities toolkit

Further Reading