Does marine planning enable progress towards adaptive governance in marine systems? Lessons from Scotland’s regional marine planning process.


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This paper examines marine planning in Scotland and the extent to which it constrains or enables change towards adaptive governance. An in-depth case study of the partnership-based regional marine planning process is presented, based on interviews and documentary analysis. Drawing on adaptive governance theory, analysis focussed on key themes of: (1) local governance and integration across scales; (2) participation and collaboration; (3) learning, innovation and adaptability; and (4) self-organization. Results present regional marine planning as an interface between hierarchical and collaborative governance based on empowerment of regional actors and an attempt to enable coexistence of ‘top-down’ arrangements with experimentation at smaller scales. In this system, national government provides legal legitimacy, economic incentives and policy oversight, while the partnerships support collaboration and innovation at the regional level, based on strong leadership and participation. Contrasting experience of partnership-working is evident between the large and complex region of the Clyde and the island region of Shetland, where devolved powers and a more cohesive and community-based stakeholder group better facilitate adaptive governance. Overall findings of the study show the tensions of institutionalizing adaptive governance and provide insights into how marine planning contributes to governance of marine systems. Firstly, vertical integration between central and decentralized authority in multi-level marine planning arrangements is challenged by an unclear balance of power and accountability between national government and regional marine planning partnerships. Secondly, the interaction between marine planning and existing policy, planning and management emerged as critical, because marine plans may only operate as an instrument to ‘guide’ management and prevailing, limited adaptive capacity in broader management structures constrains adaptive outcomes. Lastly, adaptive governance requires incremental and rapid response to change, but limited financial and technical resources constrain the depth and scale of reflection and ability to act. Understanding the contribution of marine planning requires clarification of the interaction between marine planning and other management (the extent to which it can influence decision-making in other domains) and, in addressing governance deficiencies, attention is also required on the adaptive capacity of existing and emerging legislative frameworks which govern decision-making and management of activities at sea.

Sea Basin(s): 
February 2020
Application in MSP: 
Unknown effect
Not sector specific
Type of Issue: 
Coexistence of uses
Type of practice: 
Stage of MSP cycle: 
Develop and implement plan
Cross-border / trans-national aspect: 
Coherence with other processes: 
Integrated Coastal Zone Management

Questions this practice may help answer: 

  • What is adaptative governance?  
  • How can marine planning promote adaptative governance?   

Implementation Context: 

The study is conducted by researchers from the University of St Andrews and the Scottish Association for Marine Science.  

Aspects / Objectives: 

To examine marine planning in Scotland and the extent to which it constrains or enables change towards adaptive governance.


Two case studies of marine planning in Scotland (Clyde and Shetland Marine Regions) were examined using the adaptative governance theory. The analysis focused on five themes: (i) local governance, (ii) power sharing and integration, (iii) participation and collaboration, (iv) learning, innovation and adaptability, and (v) self-organizing and supporting activities. The authors conducted a documentary analysis and 16 interviews with members of Marine Planning Partnerships.  

Main Outputs / Results: 

The regional marine planning was identified as a scale that allows co-existence of hierarchical and collaborative governance. The recommendations for improving the adaptative governance within the process of marine planning were provided. 


While the study is focused on two Scottish regions, the conceptual framework of adaptative governance can also be applied to MSP processes in other regions. 

Responsible Entity: 

Scottish Association for Marine Science 

School of Geography & Sustainable Development, and Scottish Oceans, University of St Andrews 

Funding Source: 

Scottish Association for Marine Science 

School of Geography & Sustainable Development, and Scottish Oceans, University of St Andrews 

H2020 Project 

Contact person: 

L. Greenhill: 

T.A. Stojanovic: 

P. Tett: