Managing the Marine Historic Environment

This page sets out the arrangements which are in place for the management of marine heritage, and explains Historic England’s role.

Historic England has worked with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to deliver the marine planning system set out in the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, including the UK Marine Policy Statement; a reformed system of marine development licensing; the identification of Marine Conservation Zones; and the integration of cultural heritage within the management of inshore fisheries within 6 nautical miles (nm).

We are a specialist advisor to the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) for the English area of the UK Territorial Sea.  

The MMO issues marine development licenses for a number of types of marine projects, including:

  • Seabed and foreshore construction;
  • Coastal flood risk management works;
  • Navigation and aggregate dredging; and
  • The disposal of waste materials in the sea.

The need for a marine licence depends on the nature and scale of the planned activity and its geographical location.  How the appropriate licensing authority determines an application must have regard to ‘the need to protect the environment’ which is defined in section 115(2) of the 2009 Act as inclusive of ‘any site (including any site comprising, or comprising the remains of, any vessel, aircraft or marine structure) which is of historic or archaeological interest.’.
We offer advice on relevant licensable activities that occur within the adjacent UK marine area (which extends to 200nm offshore or the median line with an adjacent state).

To explain the importance of the historic environment, Historic England has worked with various marine industrial interests such as the British Marine Aggregate Producers Association to produce Marine Aggregate Dredging and the Historic Environment: guidance note (2003) and the COWRIE group (comprising the Department of Energy and Climate Chance (DECC), the Crown Estate and offshore wind farm developers) to commission guidance to inform offshore renewable energy projects. 

We have also worked with non-government bodies such as the Joint Nautical Archaeological Policy Committee to develop and promote the Code of Practice for Seabed Developers (2006).

In the marine zone, owners’ rights and responsibilities in relation to the seabed, “built” heritage (wrecks or drowned structures) and artefacts, are very different to the terrestrial historic environment.  

A major difference relates to whether a historic asset is a “wreck” (i.e. from sunken vessel or aircraft) or not.  If it is, any attempt to recover it must be reported to, and reconciled by, the Receiver of Wreck.   

If it is not a wreck, it is regarded as being owned by the landowner – in most cases relating to the seabed, the Crown Estate.   In all cases, if the disturbance of such assets is planned, proper attention must be paid to determining their importance and factoring in the appropriate mitigation.