Abstract Half a million tonnes of sewage sludge was disposed annually over an 18-yr period at a licensed area off the Northumberland coast, UK. The disposal operation ceased in December 1998, providing the ecological opportunity to study macrobenthic changes in relation to theoretical succession models. A transect from the centre of the disposal site to a control station was monitored three times a year (i.e. March, August and December). This study provides a description of the changes in the macrobenthos and physical environment in the initial ‘3 years’ (i.e. 1999 – 2001). During the period of sewage sludge disposal there were indications of an impact on the macrobenthic community with a high total abundance of individuals ( N) and high total number of species ( S) at the stations located in the centre of the disposal ground. During the immediate post-disposal phase the site continued to show a localised increased of individuals and species in the disposal area. Over time the communities showed signs of successional changes when the reduction of organic matter source was eliminated from the natural system. Multivariate analysis demonstrated a clear gradient of change in the community composition between impacted and control stations. While most benthic studies assess re-colonisation and succession stages of macrobenthos by using manipulative field experiments, this study provides an in situ long-term assessment in the offshore environment. This study contributes with information on: i) initial colonization and succession of macrobenthic communities over a large scale and real world data; ii) macrobenthic data into existing successional models and iii) resilience of benthic communities following the cessation of sewage sludge disposal. This information has the potential to contribute to an effective management of the marine communities in the North Sea.