Assessing public “participation” in environmental decision-making: Lessons learned from the UK Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) site selection process
As part of implementing the 2009 Marine and Coastal Access Act (MCAA), the UK Government undertook an ambitious program of stakeholder-led site selection projects from 2009–2011 to designate a network of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs). This process resulted in a list of 127 proposed MCZs designed to conserve biodiversity and reconcile socioeconomic concerns, however, citing budgetary constraints and evidence-related issues, the UK Government has proceeded with a tranche approach, designating far fewer sites than stakeholders had expected. Concerned with the Government's lack of progress on the MCZ process, Parliament conducted two inquiries, highlighting problems with the Government's approach. In addition, public confidence in the participative process has eroded, with particular despair expressed by participants in the regional projects, who invested considerable time and effort in the site-selection process. This outcome has implications not only for the UK's future coastal and marine planning, but also with regard to the implementation of the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters. Drawing on interviews with participants in the consultation process, this paper examines the role of stakeholder participation in the UK MCZ site selection process, in particular how well the UK Government implemented its obligations under the Aarhus Convention, and the meaning of “participation” in a climate of political change and budgetary constraint.