Due to the combination of historically high volumes of shipping traffic, a long history of sea-faring and frequent rough seas, the density of shipwrecks in UK territorial waters is likely to be amongst the highest in the world.
The Historic England Archive contains over 40,000 records of wreck sites, documented losses and seabed archaeological features.
Historic wreck sites in UK territorial waters can be protected by designation under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 (ref. 1), the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 (ref. 2) and the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 (ref. 3).
The Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 allows the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to designate a restricted area around the site of a vessel lying on or in the seabed in UK territorial waters if he/she is satisfied that, on account of the historical, archaeological or artistic importance of the vessel, or its contents or former contents, the site ought to be protected from unauthorised interference. There are currently 57 protected wreck sites in England's territorial waters.
The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport receives specialist advice on designation of wrecks and licensing of activity at designated sites in England from Historic England. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have adopted non-statutory criteria for use in assessing the importance of wrecks and the sites of wrecks.
There are currently no scheduled monuments situated in UK territorial waters off the coast of England which are wholly outside of local authority boundaries.
The Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 (ref. 3) provides protection for the wreckage of military aircraft and certain military wrecks. Administered by the Ministry of Defence, designations can be either as a Controlled Site or Protected Place where access may be permitted but any operations which may disturb the site are illegal unless licensed by the Ministry of Defence. There are currently six Controlled Sites and 450 Protected Places (including 434 recorded aircraft) in England’s territorial waters.
Effect of designation under Protection of Wrecks Act
It is a criminal offence to do any of the following in a designated area without a licence granted by the Secretary of State:
- Tamper with, damage or remove any part of a vessel lying wrecked on or in the seabed or any object formerly contained in such a vessel.
- Carry out diving or salvage operations directed to the exploration of any wreck or to removing objects from it or from the seabed, or use equipment constructed or adapted for any purpose of diving or salvage operations.
- Deposit anything including anchors and fishing gear which, if it were to fall on the site, would obliterate, obstruct access to, or damage any part of the site.
Bathing, angling and navigation are permitted within a restricted area provided they do not breach the above restrictions. Anchoring on the site is only permitted for licensed activities or in cases of maritime distress.
Where a protected wreck site is within local authority boundaries then it will be considered a designated heritage asset for the purpose of the NPPF and offered the same level of protection in planning decisions as is afforded to scheduled monuments and highly graded listed buildings (ref. 5). Protected wreck sites beyond local authority boundaries will be considered a designated heritage asset for the purpose of the UK Marine Policy Statement. To accord with territorial policy, the relevant marine planning authority should adopt a general presumption in favour of the conservation of designated heritage assets within an appropriate setting.
(5) Paragraph 200, National Planning Policy Framework, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, July 2021