Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel - our very first Marine Conservation Zone

Something as simple as choosing a packet of coffee in a supermarket can be a fraught decision as you consciously consider cost, origin, flavour and subconsciously the packaging or association with a particular brand and lifestyle. To help politicians weigh up the pros and cons, big political decisions require a formal analysis that describes and compares the costs and benefits for different sectors of business, Government, society and the environment. This is called an ‘Impact Assessment’ and it is designed to help a Minister decide whether to build or implement something...or not. Of course the Minister would be considering many other influences as well, but the Impact Assessment is the formal tool that sets out costs and benefits.

Our Government are currently considering 23 new Marine Conservation Zones around English coasts. Impact Assessments have been carefully prepared for each site, but there are fundamental problems with trying to present a straight comparison of costs and benefits.

The first is that the figures for costs to business (in terms of added regulation or loss of access to a resource) are always easier to quantify; whereas the benefits to society and the planet are impossible to reliably quantify. We have some ways of measuring the benefits of a healthy environment such as asking people what they would be willing to pay to visit an area. However the ‘services’ provided by the sea such as recycling our nutrients, absorbing our waste or regulating our climate are vital to our existence –  incalculably valuable, and meaningless to quantify in pounds and pence. The relative uncertainty of benefits means that they do not have the same credibility and status as costs.

The second problem is that this current format creates an expectation that we can reach a good decision by simply comparing costs and benefits. You might wonder whether the protection of our natural environment should involve a cost benefit analysis at all. This approach suggests that an MCZ should only be adopted only if the benefits outweigh the costs, whereas we should be considering the benefits to future generations and to wider society.

Thirdly, although the Impact Assessment does identify and discuss potential benefits to the environment and society; ultimately these become lost when it comes to the top page summary sheet, since this is designed so that only quantified costs can be presented. In the case of Marine Conservation Zones, the box showing ‘benefits’ is empty (look here). Those using the summary to make decisions would miss a hugely important component.

We need to make help make sure that good, well-informed and balanced decisions can be made. To do this we need to present our information in a more appealing and understandable way.

The RSPB working together with the New Economics Foundation, WWF, The Wildlife Trusts and the Marine Conservation Society have developed an Improved Impact Assessment for some of the new Marine Conservation Zones to demonstrate how you can show costs and benefits much more visually and in a way that can represent the huge, but more uncertain benefits of these new protected areas around the coasts of England such as a healthier environment, happier people and stronger communities.

It is important to properly consider the impacts to fishermen and other commercial users and the costs to Government to properly manage these sites. However, these need to be presented on a level playing field and with proper consideration of the enormous benefits that they provide now and for future generations. The Improved Impact Assessment will help to remind us that the future health of our oceans shouldn’t be reduced to stand off between cost and benefit; nor is it a tool that can only be applied to MCZs-this tool is something that would be relevant across any policy decision.


See some examples here.