Marine Licensing - Protected Wrecks and Other Heritage Assets

Licensing activities on historic protected wrecks

There are currently 54 protected wreck sites designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 (1) in England.

The following activities on a protected wreck site can only be undertaken under the authority of a licence issued by the Secretary of State (for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport). It is a criminal offence under the Act to carry out such activities without a licence:

1. tampering with, damaging or removing any part of a vessel lying wrecked on or in the sea bed, or any object formerly contained in such a vessel; or

2. carrying out diving or salvage operations directed to the exploration of any wreck or to removing objects from it or from the sea bed, or using equipment constructed or adapted for any purpose of diving or salvage operations; or

3. depositing, so as to fall and lie abandoned on the sea bed, anything which, if it were to fall on the site of a wreck (whether it so falls or not), would wholly or partly obliterate the site or obstruct access to it, or damage any part of the wreck (2).

It is also an offence to cause or permit any of the prohibited activities to be carried out by others, without a licence, in a protected area (2).

The Secretary of State is obliged to grant licenses only to people who are considered:

1. to be competent and properly equipped to carry out operations in a manner appropriate to the historic archaeological or artistic importance of the protected wreck site and of any objects contained or formerly contained in a wreck, or

2. to have any other legitimate reason for doing things in the protected area which can only be done with a licence (3).

Where a person is authorised by a licence to carry out diving or salvage operations, it is an offence for any other person to obstruct them, or cause or permit them to be obstructed in doing anything that is authorised by the licence (4).

Bathing, angling and navigation are not expressly restricted within a protected area and will not require a license provided there is no likelihood of, or intention to, damage the wreck or obstruct work on it. Anchoring on the site is only permitted for licensed activities or in cases of maritime distress.

Historic England, supported by a specialist marine panel, advises on the grant of licences to named individuals and recommends the conditions to be attached to such licences. In addition, it receives reports from license holders and the current contractor for archaeological support for the Protection of Wrecks Act on activities at individual sites. It also considers and gives advice on other general underwater archaeology issues that may affect historic wrecks within England's territorial waters.

General marine licensing

The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 (5) has consolidated existing legislation and introduced changes to the system of licensing general activities in the seas around the UK. Licences are currently issued for a range of activities including: replacement of sand on beaches; construction works; land reclamation; burials at sea; renewable energy (wind, wave and tidal); aggregate dredging, and the construction of sea defences.

The changes will make the marine licensing system more consistent, giving greater certainty to applicants. The Act has also modernised enforcement powers so that officers enforcing licensing, fisheries and nature conservation legislation have access to a core set of enforcement powers for carrying out routine inspections and follow-up investigations.

All authorisation and enforcement decisions that affect or might affect the UK marine area must be made in accordance with the UK Marine Policy Statement which was published on 18 March 2011 (6). The Marine Policy Statement will enable a consistent approach to marine planning to ensure the sustainable use of marine resources and strategic management of marine activities.

The Act creates a new independent body – the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) – to bring together the functions of planning, licensing and enforcement.

A single Marine Licence in Spring 2011 replaced the existing consent system. In England and the UK offshore areas next to England, responsibility for licensing and enforcement has passed from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the MMO. These changes will result in a more streamlined and effective service for those being licensed and inspected.

Some activities outside the previous licensing regime, including some forms of dredging, have been brought within it. It is intended that certain low risk activities will be exempted from marine licensing.

For the most serious and/or persistent breaches of licensing conditions, the MMO has powers to institute civil and criminal proceedings where necessary.

Magistrates courts will have powers to award fines of up to £50,000 and the Crown Court powers to impose an unlimited fine and/or up to two years imprisonment.

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