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The new Clearances in Scotland! Or a perfect case of repent at leisure?

Act in haste, repent at leisure” is advice we often recommend to public bodies undertaking public consultation. The pressure to move swiftly can come from a myriad of directions, but wherever it originates, it is important to move at the right pace.

The Scottish Government’s pause to its Highly Protected Marine Areas programme is a potent example of how pressing the foot to the floor with the aim of reaching your destination quicker can make for failure. Many public authorities have found to their cost that rushing, missing a crucial element of a consultation and ending up in court (or the court of public opinion) can create much more of a delay than just doing things right from the start.

But what has happened with HPMAs is a bit different; it was a political risk rather than a legal one that proved fatal for HPMAs; and in this case it was a failure to execute robust option development that intensified the problem.

While tCI takes no view on the policy itself, it is important to understand a little bit about what was proposed in order to understand the problem. Highly Protected Marine Areas are parts of the sea where commercial fish and seafood fishing is curtailed to allow the ecosystem to recover and flourish. The first three HPMAs were introduced in England in early July 2023. Broadly speaking HPMAs are supported by wildlife and environment organisations. Fishers’ organisations tend to have concerns.

At the nub of the problem in Scotland was the decision to consult widely before having identified the scope of the sites. The only qualification was that HPMAs would cover at least 10% of Scotland’s waters, but no-one knew where. For some opponents, the principle of HPMAs was problematic, as it called into question whether fishing and high-quality ecosystems can coexist. But for most opponents, the concern was the uncertainty about where an HPMA might be sited – each area carried a one in ten chance.

This distribution of concern echoes debates about low traffic neighbourhoods – some people think the idea itself is the problem. For others (often a much larger group of people) the problem is where a low traffic neighbourhood will be sited; the current London ultra low emission zones drama underlines the point.

The Scottish Government seemed to allow people to believe that they might designate all inshore waters in Scotland as an HPMA, thereby preventing all fishing and even canoeing and wild swimming!

By consulting widely, without any option appraisal for specific schemes, the Scottish Government ended up in a downward spiral of misinformation and suspicion. The opponents of marine protection were able to seize on the lack of developed options to convince citizens in all of Scotland’s coastal communities that this would mean the end of inshore fishing. It even formed part of the SNP’s leadership election discourse.

Folk group Skippinish recorded “The Clearances Again” suggesting that new Highland Clearances were being planned by those behind HPMAs.

This reflected a wider rebellion by fishing and wider rural communities, already battered by Brexit and the cost of living crisis. It ended, all too predictably, in a commitment not to introduce any HPMAs at all before the 2026 election, even though it had formed a key part of the SNP-Green party coalition agreement.

The lesson is that, while it might feel right to promote wide public consultation, it pays to do the scoping work early. Had there been three or four schemes developed through pre-consultation and offered for consideration (as indeed had been achieved on the island of Arran), the contagion of concern about the principle of HPMAs would have been much less likely to spread to those with specific concerns about their own area.

If you think that HPMAs are effective, it must be tempting to try to designate as much of Scotland’s waters as possible. But doing so can result in no HPMAs at all. The period to 2026 offers much time to reflect at leisure.

As change becomes more contested it becomes ever more vital to undertake the public work upfront that can ease the path to delivery.  

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