Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council has been ordered to pay more than £11,000 in fines and costs after admitting that it carried out works without obtaining a marine licence from the Marine Management Organisation.
The local authority appeared at Liverpool Magistrates’ Court over works at Hilbre Island, an environmentally sensitive area and part of a local nature reserve off the coast of the Wirral Peninsula.
Following a partial cliff collapse in 2016, the local authority commissioned a report to investigate the stability of the area. The report set out several options to prevent further collapsing, and the council chose the option of infilling a cave in the cliffside. The report noted at this time that a marine licence would be required for these works.
In July 2019, the council instructed contractors to shore up the cave. The work involved the infilling of the cave with a combination of polyurethane slabs and polyurethane expanding foam.
A month later, a storm hit the island, resulting in the sea washing parts of the foam away over several days. As a result, some of the foam entered the marine environment.
Several days later, the contractors reapplied the expanding foam. The foam then caught fire and burned for three days until the entire contents of the cave filling were burnt out. A quantity of this entered the marine environment. Clean-up efforts were made by the council, the contractors, and local volunteers.
The works associated with the cave infilling were not carried out under a marine licence, in that neither the council nor the contractors applied to the MMO for a marine licence. This was contrary to Section 65 of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. The foam used was not designated safe to use in the marine environment.
In sentencing, District Judge Clark at Liverpool Magistrates' Court found the actions of the council to have been negligent.
A representative from the council pleaded guilty to the charge. The local authority was fined £8,000, ordered to pay £3,894 in costs and a £150 victim surcharge.
The judge gave Wirral credit for an early guilty plea, noted the council had been cooperative with the MMO's investigation, had taken steps to rectify the damage that had been caused and said he recognised imposing a larger fine would negatively impact the service the council provides for the public.
An MMO spokesperson 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 these, MMO will always take proportionate and appropriate action, including prosecution, to ensure the marine environment is protected."
A Wirral Council spokesperson said the local authority did not contest the charge because it takes its responsibility for the custodianship of the Hilbre Islands and the protection of the local environment generally "extremely seriously".
The spokesperson said: "Although the offence of failure to obtain the required licence from the MMO ahead of works taking place on Hilbre Island is largely an administrative one – an oversight rather than a deliberate decision to ignore the requirement – we also made clear in our statement to the court that we acknowledge the nature of the works that took place was not appropriate to the setting.
"However well-intentioned – the aim being to make safe and provide a structural stability to the eroded cliff so it could continue to receive visitors – the type of foam and foam blocks used by the contractor was not suitable for the marine environment."
They added: "We are very sorry to everyone who was affected and impacted by this incident and we are grateful that the environment around the islands does not appear to have suffered lasting damage as a result.
"This is, in part, due to the council's response in the immediate aftermath and the following weeks and months to clean up debris from the affected area."
The council created the post of Senior Coastal Risk Manager to oversee all proposed coastal work, following the incident.
"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," according to the council.