The underwater nature reserves are one of the key proposals in the draft Marine Bill, published on Thursday.

A new UK-wide planning system would also be introduced and licensing of developments such as offshore wind farms would be simplified.

A centre of marine excellence – the Marine Management Organisation – would also be created to regulate activities and enforce environmental protection laws.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said: “Our proposals will raise protection and management of our seas to a new level, halting the decline in biodiversity to create, clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas.”

The marine conservation zones aim to protect habitats and species of national importance from activities such as fishing, dredging and development.

But the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has raised concerns that the bill does not provide the necessary powers for the bodies to prohibit damaging activities, rather than just restrict or manage them.

Members of the MCS, British Sub-Aqua Club divers and UK Aquaria representatives marched on the House of Commons on Thursday to deliver a petition of 100,000 signatures calling for tougher measures on marine reserves.

Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, biodiversity policy officer at MCS, said: “We fear the proposals set out in the draft bill will only repeat the errors of the past, with Government allowing short-term commercial interest to compromise much needed long-term protection and sustainability.”

The British Wind Energy Association supported the bill’s aim to create a new planning framework for offshore energy generation, and called on Government to balance conservation concerns with the need for renewable energy.

Chief executive Maria McCaffery said: “The sea isn’t just an environmental asset – it has to be a sustainable economic one as well.”

Controversially, the bill will also give the public the freedom to walk the entire length of the English coast for the first time.

The draft bill can be found here.

Kate Martin

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