UK coastal waters valued at £200bn by ONS

The economic value of the UK’s coastal waters has been put at more than £200bn amid growing recognition of the sea’s importance for renewable energy and as a barrier against global heating.

Richard Partington

In an official estimate for the value of marine natural assets, the Office for National Statistics said offshore wind production had soared in value by 37 times in the past decade.

Reflecting the growth of renewable electricity generation, the annual value of offshore wind energy generation increased to £296m in 2018, more than double the value in 2017, and 3,612% higher than in 2008.

Britain has become a world leader for wind power in recent years, with turbines on land and sea generating nearly a fifth of overall UK electricity, as the second-largest source behind gas. The UK recorded its greenest ever day for power generation over the Easter bank holiday, as a result of the windy and sunny weather, when 41% of electricity came from wind and 21% from solar farms.

However, official figures show the number of direct jobs supported by the offshore wind sector has only increased marginally in recent years despite the energy boom, growing by just 14% from 6,300 in 2014 to 7,200 in 2019.

The ONS said there were three main ways that the value of Britain’s marine ecosystems could be calculated: as a cultural and recreational asset; in the provision of natural resources; and as a regulator of environmental factors such as carbon emissions and water flows to prevent flooding.

Recreation had the highest value to the economy, worth an estimated £75bn. The study found more than 1 bn hours are spent on beaches and by the sea in Britain each year, representing a tenth of total hours spent on outdoor recreation with the coastal environment the key draw for millions of tourists and more than £1.7bn in consumer spending. It also said there was an average added-value of £8,100 for house prices with a sea view.

Highlighting the importance of aquatic habitats, sand dunes and salt marshes for capturing carbon – helping to limit global heating – the ONS estimated that between 10.5 and 60.1 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent are sequestered in UK waters, with a value of between £742m and £4.3bn.

However, it warned there was increasing pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater discharge, while the extent of natural salt marshes in the UK had also declined at a rate of 40 hectares a year for the last 50 years, damaging natural defences.

Estimating the contribution from fishing, the ONS said the value from the marine environment was about £7.5bn. It found that a total of 395 different species of fish were caught in UK waters, but that more than half the tonnage was made up of just two species: herring and mackerel. Overall, the report found a rise in sustainable fishing between 2015 and 2019.

However, the total net profit from catching fish in UK waters fell from a peak of £366m in 2017 to £284m in 2018, according to the latest available figures.

ERS reveals the scale of secretive online campaigning during last year’s election

Democracy in the Dark – our new report commissioned from two of the UK’s leading election finance academics reveals a major rise in online spending during the 2019 general election – with little transparency over how it was used. 

Nearly a year after the 2019 election, official insights on party spending returns have not yet been published. Even when the official figures are released, lax reporting rules mean voters will be little wiser as to how campaigners were targeting their resources.  

In Democracy in the Dark, Dr Katharine Dommett and Dr Sam Power have estimated how much was spent on social media platforms by campaigners and parties during the election and tracked the rise of non-party ‘outriders’.   

Online spend increases

In the six weeks before polling day in 2019, the Conservative Party raised more money in donations than all other parties combined during the same pre-poll period in 2017. But little information is available about any of the main parties’ spending online or offline, not least in terms of how they targeted voters. We do know that in 2019 the Conservatives invested dramatically more in Google than other parties – roughly triple Labour’s spend.  

Political party spending on platforms is likely to have increased by over 50 percent in 2019 compared to 2017, with around £6 million spent on Facebook and just under £3 million on Google by the three main UK-wide parties. However, social media giants’ online ad archives – set up to provide a veneer of political transparency – are insufficient and often error-prone. 

The rise of outriders

Adverts placed by national parties constituted only a fraction of the total campaign spend: we also saw the rise of the ‘outrider’. Sixty-four of these organisations registered in 2019 as a whole and 46 were registered after the election was (officially) confirmed on 29 October. Voters are too often kept unaware of who is behind these opaque outfits.

Campaign material from non-party actors
  • Campaign material from non-party actors

According to new analysis of Facebook data, 88 UK organisations were listed as non-party campaign groups during the 2019 election. These groups placed 13,197 adverts at a calculated cost of £2,711,452. It is often difficult for voters to work out who is behind campaign material from a non-party actor.  

There is a lack of information available in key areas around the digital campaign such as how much was spent on online, who was behind key election spending, how such messages were targeted, what they said –  and how voters’ personal data was used to do it. 

It is currently ‘exceedingly difficult’ if not impossible to uphold the principles of the UK’s foundational electoral legislation.   

 While the government has committed to legislating for digital ‘imprints’ to show who is paying for ads, it has not yet set out a clear timeline as to its implementation.  

10 key reforms

In Democracy in the Dark, the authors highlight 10 key reforms – beyond online imprints – needed to shine a light on online political campaigning: 

  1. Require campaigners to provide the Electoral Commission with more detailed, meaningful and accessible invoices of what they have spent, boosting scrutiny and transparency over online vs offline spend. 
  2. Strengthen the powers of the Electoral Commission to investigate malpractice and create a stronger deterrent against wrongdoing by increasing the maximum fine it can levy. 
  3. Implement shorter reporting deadlines so that financial information from campaigns on their donations and spending is available to voters and the Commission more quickly after a campaign, or indeed, in ‘real time’. Currently, voters have to wait far too long to see the state of the campaign.  
  4. Regulate all donations by reducing ‘permissibility check’ requirements from £500 to 1p for all non-cash donations, and £500 to £20 for cash donations. The current rules are riddled with loopholes and haven’t kept up with the digital age, raising the risks of foreign or unscrupulous interference.  
  5. Create a publicly accessible, clear and consistent archive of paid-for political advertising. This archive should include details of each advert’s source (name and address), who sponsored (paid) for it, and (for some) the country of origin.  
  6. New controls created by social media companies to check that people or organisations who want to pay to place political adverts about elections and referendums in the UK are actually based in the UK or registered to vote here.  
  7. New legislation clarifying that campaigning by non-UK actors is not allowed. Campaigners should not be able to accept money from companies that have not made enough money in the UK to fund the amount of their donation or loan. 
  8. Legislate for a statutory code of practice for the use of personal information in political campaigns, to clarify the rules and ensure voters know their rights. 
  9. A public awareness and digital literacy campaign which will better allow citizens to identify misinformation. 
  10. Rationalise Britain’s sprawling, Victorian-era electoral law under one consistent legislative framework. 

Openness and transparency are the key foundations for any democracy. Yet nearly a year after the general election, voters remain in the dark about who is targeting them online.  

It’s likely that we’ll never get a full picture of who was behind the online ads that so many voters saw during the election, digital campaigning remains an unregulated Wild West, and the government must get to grips with this now. But rather than giving our election watchdog the powers it needs to shine a light on what’s going on, we are instead seeing growing threats made to its future

There is near-unanimous agreement that our election rules are not fit for purpose and are undermining our democracy. As technology moves ahead, analogue-age campaign laws are putting the integrity of our elections at risk. But with the clear recommendations for change in this report, we can safeguard against dodgy donors, dark ads and disinformation, and restore faith in our democratic system.

We asked the authors for their thoughts on the importance of Democracy in the Dark. Dr Kate Dommett said: “This report sets out the clear impetus for change and shows the scale of the challenge we confront. Reflecting on the numerous recommendations that are already out there, we demonstrate the need to move beyond inquiries and begin to act.”  

Dr Sam Power added: “This report shows that in five key areas – money, non-party campaigning, targeting, data use and misinformation – our electoral regulation is being stretched to breaking point. Whilst we present new data, the basic argument is not novel. It contains recommendations that have been repeated again and again by campaigners and policy-makers alike, and reflect genuine public concern in this area.”  

With this report we call on the government to take urgent action, far beyond merely a consultation on digital imprints.

Read Democracy in the Dark here. 

Sign our petition to shine a light on ‘dark ads’

New Jenrick rules will strip character from our Town centres 

With the amorphous character of housing development sprawling around our towns and villages, it is only their centres that retain any character. But this character can now be changed “overnight” by new permitted development rights introduced by Robert Jenrick and described as a “complete gift to unscrupulous developers”.

From a Budleigh correspondent:

New rules allowing commercial premises to be converted into homes came into force on 31 March 2021 as “part of a package of measures to revitalise England’s cherished high streets and town centres”.

 “Permitted Development Rights” (PD) will be expanded which will enable developers to turn shops, pharmacies, restaurants and post offices into apartments without needing planning permission in town centres. A property will only have to be empty for 3 months before it can be converted. Until now, for example, while developers have technically had a permitted development right to turn shops and professional services premises into homes, this has only applied to properties smaller than 150sq m.

There will be no right for the local authority to object to the conversion on the basis that they want to retain commercial uses in a particular location, or in order to support the delivery of local plan policies around town centres.

The amount of activity of high streets would plummet which has to be really carefully managed and the quality of the accommodation would also plummet as has already been seen with current PD conversions.

PD conversions would bring in no section 106 money and councils would also lose business rates, while at the same time facing a potentially higher social services load as a consequence of people living in substandard accommodation.

And where would the wheelie bins go?

The “sting” is that this will also apply to Conservation Areas – albeit with an additional prior approval criterion added to consider the impact of conversion on the conservation area.  Architects, planners, conservationists and the National Trust have condemned this move.

East Devon District Council has designated 33 Conservation Areas in the district. We have many areas of special architectural or historic interest and the aim of these is to enhance or preserve the character of each area. They cover the historic town centres of all the seven major towns i.e. Exmouth , Budleigh Salterton, Sidmouth, Seaton, Honiton and Axminster, and also include our historic villages. See designation here.

However, local authorities will have the ability to apply for so-called “article 4” directions exempting specific areas from the measures, if they can mount a persuasive case as to why that is necessary. My previous experience with EDDC’s Ed Freeman and Article 4 directions is there is a reluctance to apply these powers, so not much hope here.  (A number of London boroughs, for example, managed to secure similar exemptions from the 2015 “office-to-resi” rights. And they were enthusiastically deployed by prime minister Boris Johnson when he was mayor of London to protect the capital’s commercial heartland.)

We all agree that our towns need an uplift but a free for all is not the way to go about it as our historic town centres will be extremely vulnerable to “unscrupulous developers” and “substandard homes”.

The only excemption to these rights will be in Budleigh Salterton. The town is in the East Devon AONB and the only exceptions to this policy will be in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. You may ask why Budleigh Salterton and not Sidmouth, a much older, historic town is in the East Devon AONB. Initially all towns were excluded when boundaries were set but the reasons for this exception were given in 1961 by the National Parks Commission  

(i) they believed that the quality of the coastline immediately west of Budleigh Salterton was so good that it justified the inclusion of the town itself in the AONB, and

(ii) while they agreed with the NPC view that Sidmouth should be excluded, the drawing of a precise boundary around the town should await the outcome of discussions between Sidmouth UDC and the County Council.

But has this exceptional inclusion had any effect on the town with EDDC planners? As a resident of Budleigh Salterton it has been obvious that the town’s inclusion in the East Devon AONB has always been a thorn in the flesh to EDDC planners and something very often completely forgotten or overlooked. We will see whether the blinkers continue with Permitted Development Rights.

We all know we need to upgrade our town centres but as Victoria Hills, chief executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute, said “the changes were a complete gift to unscrupulous developers”.

Beach plan for Exmouth to ensure ‘jewel in the crown’ isn’t lost

Work is set to begin on a beach management plan for Exmouth to ensure that the town’s ‘jewel in the crown’ isn’t lost.

Daniel Clark

There have been noticeable changes to Exmouth beach over the last 20 years which has led to a depletion of beach levels in front of the Maer, while there has been some mixed changes to the eastern and western ends at Exmouth seafront.

Some of the changes have been short-term due to the impacts of storms, while others are more longer term, such as the loss of former beach dunes and the movement of sand towards the estuary.

East Devon District Council’s cabinet on Wednesday recommended to council that a new Steering Group be created to look at how to best to address the impacts of the most significant changes to the beach.

While the meeting heard that Exmouth’s beach is vital for tourism, including the new Sideshore watersports centre set to open this summer, it offers no flood defences and thus funding so any agreed scheme from other agencies would be limited.

EDDC engineer Tom Buxton-Smith said: “There is little property at risk that can be used to justify grant in aid funding from the Environment Agency and impact on infrastructure such as roads is also limited due to the availability of alternative routes.

“An aim of the proposed scheme will be to explore the potential options to improve the beach and this will also need to consider the lifetime of these options in light of any trends in coastal processes

“We are keen to set up a group to see how to best manage the beach in the short term and the long term. Exmouth beach is an amenity beach and offers no flood defence to notable buildings, so there won’t be millions of pounds to tap into, but we need to do what we can to keep Exmouth beach healthy and for the amenity and tourism that relies on it.”

Cllr Steve Gazzard said that he welcomed the proposals and hoped that actions would actually be taken. He said: “The beach has changed beyond all recognition and it has lost over 6ft from the area around the lifeboat and at low tide, they have to move it way down the seafront so they can get into deeper water.

“Exmouth seafront is the jewel in the crown but what concerns me is that people will come to Exmouth and see the state that the beach is in, they may get a false impression. We advertise it as a golden beach but they see the pipes and the metalwork that has been exposed. I hope there will be some short term measures taken as I am really concerned about what could happen to tourism in Exmouth.”

Cllr Fred Caygill added: “We have to look forward as the whole economics of the town relies on Exmouth seafront,” while Cllr Nick Hookway added: “This is a very urgent matter as the winter storms virtually took sand away from the area around the lifeboat station and exposed pipes in a very dangerous condition.”

Mr Buxton-Smith, in his report, said that the baseline option that the council could choose was to do nothing, but it would mean sand will ramp up to sea wall, and blow over before loss into the road, assets such as steps and the seawall will slowly start to fail and become unusable, and at some point, the sea wall may fail, the Queen’s Drive road will be severed, and the road/seawall would continue to disappear as the sea tries to connect back to the Maer, and that while it would be a financial saving to the council, it would be unacceptable both legally and politically.

Carrying on with the current management of the beach would become increasingly expensive to maintain, he said, and proposed that an Exmouth Beach Management Scheme Advisory Group be set up to allow exploration of the best options to manage this sustainably into the future for the town.

Potential future options that could be considered include beach recycling/recharge to replace sand that has been lost over last 20+years, new groynes, offshore structures or an artificial reef, dredging of the channel, or a large redevelopment scheme with new development such as housing/businesses providing funding to provide improvements to the beach, although the future options have funding and other challenges that would need to be overcome.

The cabinet unanimously recommended to the full council that an Exmouth Beach Management Plan Steering Group be established, and that they progress work towards developing a new beach management plan for Exmouth.

Cllr Jack Rowland added: “In view of the urgency, it is important the steering group meet as early as possible.”