Introduction to the framework of controls

This Section introduces the major items of legislation that provide the framework of controls on pollution of coastal waters in the UK and identifies the competent authorities charged with implementing these responsibilities. The information provided is current at the time of writing but some aspects of legislation are under review. The text indicates any reviews currently under discussion. Statutory nature conservation agency staff will be consulted as part of the assessment of possible impacts of new/revised authorisations etc. under the Habitats Regulations. The purpose of this Section is to provide background information for staff on:

  • on the competent authority responsible for particular consenting activities; and
  • the legislation which that competent authority will use in carrying out that assessment.

Staff should contact the relevant competent authority responsible for implementing European Directives and North Sea commitments for progress in achieving targets.


The activities identified in Table 4.1 are controlled to varying extents by a framework of controls comprising UK and European Union (EU) legislation and international agreements to which the Government is committed. These controls on pollution represent tiers of legislation with different legal status and geographical areas of applicability.

For a control to be statutory and therefore legally binding, it must be written into UK legislation which applies to the UK or parts thereof. Commonly, different legislation applies in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (although frequently the same, or similar, controls are implemented). UK legislation comprises primary (Acts of Parliament) and secondary (Regulations) legislation. The geographical area within which UK legislation on pollution control can apply extends to the limit of UK territorial waters (12 nautical miles) but commonly applies only in coastal waters (3 nautical miles).

International agreements can apply globally or to more restricted areas, such as parts of oceans or individual seas. They are needed to control pollution or potentially polluting activities in international waters (beyond territorial waters) that threaten the status of these bodies of water, including coastal areas. The provisions of international agreements are not necessarily legally binding but rely on countries honouring their commitments. Some provisions of international agreements have been included in EU and UK legislation and have become statutory controls through that route.

The key items of primary legislation and the parts of the UK to which they apply are indicated in the linked table.

The key items of EU legislation providing controls on water quality in the marine environment are:

  • Council Directive 96/61/EC of 24 September 1996 concerning integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC);
  • Council Directive 91/676/EEC of 12 December 1991 concerning the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources (Nitrates Directive);
  • Council Directive 91/271/EEC of 21 May 1991 concerning urban waste-water treatment (Urban Waster Water Treatment (UWWT) Directive);
  • Council Directive 79/923/EEC of 30 October 1979 on the quality required of shellfish waters (Shellfish Waters Directive);
  • Council Directive 76/464/EEC of 4 May 1976 on pollution caused by dangerous substances discharged into the aquatic environment of the Community (Dangerous Substances Directive) and "daughter" Directives;
  • Council Directive 76/160/EEC of 8 December 1975 concerning the quality of bathing water (Bathing Waters Directive).

In June 1995, the Council of Minsters and the European Parliament called for a fundamental review of EU water policy. As a result, the Commission proposed a Council Directive Establishing a Framework for Community Action in the field of Water Policy (Water Framework Directive) that same year. This proposed Directive is under discussion with the European Parliament and negotiations over amendments are still taking place. The current estimate for an agreed Directive is during the Portuguese Presidency (January to June 2000).

The important international agreements to which the UK is committed are:

  • The Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, 1992 (OSPAR Convention);
  • North Sea Conferences;
  • Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Waste and Other Matter, 1972 (London Convention);
  • International Convention on the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973, as modified by the Protocol of 1978 relating thereto (MARPOL 73/78).

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