A recent case against Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council (WMBC) has highlighted the importance in obtaining a marine licence for work involving licensable marine activities.


After parts of Hilbre Island cliff collapsed in 2016, one of the recommendations to help with stability was to fill a cave located in the island cliffside. The report noted that such activity would require a marine licence for the work to be carried out.

In 2019, WMBC engaged contractors to start filling the cave, but the work was undertaken without a marine licence, and the material used was not approved for use in a marine environment.

As a result, following a summer storm in that same year, the foam material was washed into the water leading WMBC to use the same contractors to reapply the same unsuitable material. During this second application, the foam caught fire, burning the cave contents and putting more pollution into the marine environment as the blaze burned for three days.


The Marine Management Organisation (MMO), who are responsible for marine licensing in English inshore waters, plus English and Northern Irish offshore waters, began legal proceedings against WMBC for a breach of the marine licencing regime.

The case was brought under Section 65 of the Marine and Coastal Access Act of 2009 which effectively prevents any licensable marine activity from being carried out except in accordance with a marine licence having been granted by the appropriate authority.

Neither WMBC nor the contractors carrying out the work had obtained the requisite licence. WMBC pleaded guilty to carrying out a marine licensable activity without a licence and were fined £8,000, £3,894.22 in a costs charge, plus a £150 victim surcharge.

Having found the actions of the council to be negligent, the Judge deemed there to be mitigating factors in WMBC’s defence which included:

  • Entering an early guilty plea.
  • Their full cooperation with the MMO’s investigation.
  • Significant efforts made in cleaning up the marine environment as a result of the incident.

There was also an acknowledgement that any larger fine would have an impact on the council’s ability to provide services to the public.

Following the conclusion of the case, a representative of the MMO said: “This case shows the importance of applying for a marine licence before works are undertaken. Had marine experts been able to look at the proposals before works were undertaken, these substances would not have been approved for use and would not have entered the marine environment.

In cases like this, MMO will always take proportionate and appropriate action, including prosecution, to ensure the marine environment is protected.”

In the aftermath, WMBC created a new post of Senior Coastal Risk Manager to oversee all future coastal work. They said: “This change means the council will fully comply with all environmental legal requirements and ensure that no future works can take place along the coast without undergoing a robust and challenging scrutiny process.”


Given the increased public awareness of the marine environment and desire to see waters kept clean and protected, it has never been more important to ensure full compliance when any work is being carried out in and around Britain’s coasts.

The MMO aren’t afraid to prosecute, using their wide range of enforcement powers to prevent harm. Potential fines for a corporate body are also likely to have been much larger than the one imposed on local authorities as in this case.

If you have any queries about undertaking work that may require a marine licence, speak to Stephens Scown’s expert marine team.