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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.

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 prodcued guidance on competent authority coordination under 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.

Duties for 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.

Duties for Marine Management Organisation (MMO)

The MMO manages activities that require a marine licence, has powers to make byelaws to and develops marine plans. 

The MMO is responsible for making byelaws in English inshore waters to protect European marine sites (EMS) and marine conservation zones (MCZs) from activities that may harm them. MMO byelaws must help to further the conservation objectives of the site. It has the power to make byelaws within 0-12 nautical miles. For the management of commercial fishing activities, MMO will lead on the management between 6-12 nautical miles, with the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCA) leading in the 0-6 nautical miles area. MMO will consider voluntary measures before making a byelaw. If a permanent byelaw is required, this will be formally consulted upon.

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

Organisation 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