In Scotland the foreshore and the seabed to a limit of twelve nautical miles belongs to the Crown. So too do the rights to all minerals in the continental shelf, excluding hydrocarbons, out to the 200 nautical mile limit. The Crown Estate also has the right to all naturally occurring mussels and oysters and to all ‘large whales’, not to mention coastal salmon fishing and the right to mine gold and silver. These crown property rights date back well before the Act of Union and indeed before the Union of the crowns. Legally, they are vested in the Crown of Scotland, so differ from those south of the border.
The seabed alone makes up more than half of Scotland’s entire territory, and if you include the 18,000 kilometres of foreshore, it is an even more considerable amount of land. And both are becoming more important to Scotland’s economy with the advent of the offshore renewables industry. But the management of the Scottish Crown Estate was not devolved to Scotland in 1998 and remains reserved to Westminster. It is undertaken by the Crown Estate Commissioners (CEC) whose remit is ‘to manage and enhance its value and the return obtained from it, but with due regard to the requirements of good management’. They are not accountable in any formal way to either Scottish ministers or the Scottish parliament.
The report of the Land Reform Review Group to Scottish ministers, which was published on May 23rd, notes somewhat wryly that two years after devolution, the CEC ended Scotland’s position as a distinct business division and centralised its activity south of the border. The change ‘could be seen,’ the report notes, ‘as a tactical decision to minimise engagement with the new devolved Scottish Parliament’.
How does Westminster profit?
The short answer is that is doesn’t, or at least not sufficiently to make handing over the management and revenues to Scotland a cause of sleepless nights for the UK treasury. The CEC’s operations in Scotland represent only 4% of the capital value of the entire Crown Estate and 3% of its revenue. Much of this revenue is returned via the Coastal Communities Fund (managed by the Big Lottery) which splits it between Highlands and Islands and the rest of Scotland. For example, in 2010/2011, the CEC surplus from its Scottish marine activities was about £5.7 million, and the Costal Communities Fund received back £3.9m.
So why does it matter?
It matters because the CEC runs its operations as a purely commercial business. So it is focused on maximising capital values and revenues, and does not take the ‘public good’ of any proposed project into account. For example, public funds may be used to subsidise a ferry service to a Scottish island, but at the same time the CEC will be aiming to maximise its revenue from the use of piers or slipways. A commercial installation on the seabed may receive neither help nor support, but simply a bill for no tangible reason other than to provide a source of income to the UK Treasury. The discontent this has engendered over the years is considerable. The following quotes are from a debate in the Scottish Parliament in April 2012 on the Scottish Affairs Committee report:
“The Crown Estate has a whiff of a heady mixture of feudalism and paternalism.” (David Stewart – Lab)
“Now I know what it is like to have dealt with a medieval feudal baron because they have the power to say yes or no with no right of challenge, no right of recourse.” (Cllr Michael Foxley, quoted by David Stewart)
“The report provides a damning assessment of the Crown Estate in Scotland, which lacks accountability, transparency and clear consultation, communication and engagement with communities. The report concluded: ‘Urgent reform is required and the control and management of the organisation in Scotland must be changed.’ (Jim Eadie, SNP)
The Land Reform Review Group points out that no other maritime country in Europe has any equivalent to the CEC’s control over the marine environment. Putting operating control over Scotland’s seabed into Scottish hands would open up ‘huge opportunities for improvements.’ No longer would the CEC be running its own unaccountable system of approvals on a commercial basis. Instead, there could be co-ordinated planning covering permissions and leases with the overall objective of operating for the common good in the public interest.
This is especially important when it comes to renewable energy projects. As the technology for wave and tidal energy improves, and as offshore wind power becomes more efficient, there will be a rapid pick-up in demand for seabed installations, sub-sea cables, and piers or slipways for service vessels. An outmoded management, run from anything up to 800 miles distant, is hardly the best way of promoting Scotland’s interests.
The prospects of anything changing without independence? – Probably nil
The Land Reform Review Group’s recommendation that ‘ending the Crown Estates Commissioners’ involvement in Scotland would deliver wide ranging and important benefits in Scotland’ and that ‘the Crown Estates Commissioners’ statutory responsibilities in Scotland under the Crown Estates Act 1961, should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament’ is likely to hit the same brick wall as previous similar recommendations. These include those of the Crown Estate Review Working Group (2007), The Calman Commission (2009) The Select Treasury Committee (2010) the report of the Scotland Bill Committee (2011) and the Scottish Affairs Committee (2012).
Given the track record of intransigence exhibited by Westminster in the face of all this pressure to reform, the only way of getting the management of Scotland’s seabed into Scotland’s hands, is to vote for independence.
The Crown Estates Commissioners represent a hangover from the days when Scotland was rigidily controlled by Westminster. The repeated ignoring of recommendations that their responsibilities in Scotland should be devolved shows that distrust of the devolution settlement still runs deep in some quarters. It makes eminently good sense to give Scotland control over its own seabed and foreshore, and there is no practical or financial reason why this should not happen. Yet it has not happened, and is unlikely to happen any time soon. Only by voting Yes can Scotland gain control of its martime territory.