Offshore wind turbines

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Marine development in the UK and internationally is not currently sufficiently considering the wide range of social impacts for coastal communities, a new report finds.

The University of Exeter has completed a scoping review of evidence on the social impacts of marine sectors on coastal communities, on behalf of The Crown Estate. The review was led by Dr Pamela Buchan, an interdisciplinary marine scientist in the University of Exeter Geography Department and ACCESS Network Leadership College Fellow.

Research is dominated by efforts to generate acceptance of developments, whilst existing practices are focused on job creation, skills development, and grant giving through community benefit schemes. This is strongly influenced by a lack of regulation that requires offshore sectors to consider, evidence, and monitor social impacts at all stages of marine development, with practices such as Environmental Impact Assessment often scoping out coastal community impacts for activities taking place at sea.

The review is one of a number of evidence bases The Crown Estate is using to inform its thinking on social impact in the marine space, as well as comprising a key resource for the wider marine industry.

The study also finds wide variation in research and practice between marine sectors. Although there is more to do, offshore wind is the most heavily researched and is leading the way in social impact assessment and community participation practices, with recognition of how changes to place can impact upon community identity and cultural practices. There is very limited evidence about how offshore activities, such as subsea cabling and marine aggregate extraction, impact coastal communities. Ports are not being recognised for their key role in marine industries and the potential social impacts from infrastructure changes that will arise from green industrialisation.

The report identified that overall marine decision-making processes need revision to better recognise the pillars of social justice:

  1. Recognition of coastal communities and wider society as stakeholders in marine development, and the potential conflict between the wider societal benefit and more local place-based impacts.
  2. Procedural participation of stakeholders to enable better understanding of potential impacts and identification of alternative plans, and to fulfil the UN Human Right to participate in environmental decision-making in the marine context.
  3. Distribution of benefits and negative impacts in a fairer way that goes beyond the current narrow set of social impacts relating to some socio-economic outcomes.

The report gives a substantial set of recommendations aimed at research, specific marine sectors, and company level actions and regulation. It calls for systematic review of social impact assessment across marine sectors.

Dr Buchan, who led the review, has expertise in marine citizenship and governance, and practical experience of a range of marine sectors. Her research is committed to creating important social scientific evidence and applying it to marine decision-making processes to tackle complex social and environmental challenges. The evidence review considered a large set of literature from academic publications, industry research, and company reports.

Dr Buchan said: “This report sets out for the first time a comprehensive overview of social impact assessment in marine development in the UK and internationally that crosses marine sectors. The study considered the breadth of potential social impacts for coastal communities and found a lot of variation in how well research and industry practices are recognising these.

“The study also looked at how involved people can be in marine decision-making. Activities happening at sea are typically being viewed as not having any effect on nearby coastal communities – sometimes called ‘sea blindness’ – and consequently many marine decisions are made without the public being meaningfully involved.”

As manager of the seabed around England, Wales and Northern Ireland, The Crown Estate is responsible for the leasing process for a wide range of marine industries, including offshore wind, carbon capture, tidal and wave energy, as well as aquaculture. It also stewards natural assets for future generations by balancing the many demands for their use, while promoting habitat restoration and nature recovery. It recognises that, delivered in the right way, these leasing processes have the potential to drive social value for coastal communities – something it is already exploring with developers as part of leasing plans for floating offshore wind in the Celtic Sea.

Anna Swaithes, Head of Sustainability at The Crown Estate, said: “As a company for the country, one of our key objectives is to create social value alongside environmental and financial value for the nation. That’s why, last year, we commissioned the University of Exeter to undertake research on how social impact is understood and measured across the marine economy and how marine sectors impact coastal communities.

“One of a number of evidence bases from external organisations that we’re using to inform our thinking on social impact assessment in the marine space, today’s report provides a critical evidence base to inform how we create social value as part of our activities on the seabed, from how we engage directly with onshore community groups and wider stakeholders to how we work with developers to improve and measure social impact.

“Crucially, it also provides a resource for the wider marine industry on how existing practice across the marine economy can be adapted to ensure that amidst the development of our seabed, onshore communities benefit.”

The report is available for free download here: Please contact Dr Pamela Buchan if you have any questions about this work: