Delighted to see that the Scottish government intend to look at ways to stop the revenue from Scotland's seabed going directly to The Treasury in London via The Crown Estate. For more on this aspect of Alex Salmond's statement go to Andy Wightman's blog here. It should put the Liberal Democrats in a spot because their Highland and Island MPs and MSPs have long campaigned for this reform. Andy is the author of Who Owns Scotland and a relentless and influential campaigner on land issues for 20 years. His forth-coming book, The Poor had no Lawyers is a history of Scotland from the perspective of land struggles. It promises to be a fascinating - and controversial - read. The First Minister seems to agree with Andy that Scottish communities should have a say in, and benefit from, renewable resources such as wind and tide energy in their waters. See this piece by David Ross in The Herald
I wrote a column on the subject earlier this summer in The Scotsman, reproduced below:
"If I told you an absentee laird controls half of Scotland’s sovereign territory you would be surprised. If you learned this individual collects rents from those using the land, but expects Scots to fund its maintenance, surprise might turn to anger. Assets worth billions of pounds have recently been discovered on this vast estate. The Scottish people will subsidise the extraction of those assets. But our fabulously wealthy laird, who resides in splendour just off London’s Regent Street, will pocket the proceeds.
Only one journalistic liberty has been taken in the paragraph above. The laird is not an individual. Rather he is a faceless quango known as the Crown Estate. While laws passed by the Scottish parliament limited the rights of private landowners – even the good ones - the Crown Estate, which is really a glorified factor, continues to operate like a robber baron of old.
If you are a small boat owner, you will be familiar with the Crown Estate, which manages a £6billion property portfolio including half of Scotland’s foreshore and the seabed out to the 12 mile nautical limit. Many coastal residents, who have historically moored small craft near their homes, were shocked when the Crown Estate began demanding rent in the 1980s for what was considered a community asset. Only this year the Crown Estate fought small boat owners on Bute in the Court of Session using public funds. The islanders insisted the seabed was granted to them by royal charted centuries ago, but had no funds to defend the case.
In future many more Scots, urban and well as rural, are going to have their lives touched by the Crown Estate. The potential of offshore wind, wave and tidal energy change the game plan entirely. It belongs to us all and we should all feel the benefits. But the Crown Estate website claims, erroneously, that this treasure is all theirs. It is worth considerably more than mooring rents. In 2008-9 the UK marine estate was valued at £409.5million and generated revenue of almost £50m, a rise of 18% on the previous year. A substantial part of that comes from Scotland.
What the Crown Estate does to earn this income is unclear. It is the Scottish government which invests in attracting and supporting renewable energy companies with initiatives such as The Saltire Prize. It is Marine Scotland, also funded by Holyrood, which maintains the seabed.
But the Crown Estate gets the loot. Money from renewable wind, wave and tidal licences goes to its elegant offices in Burlington Place, W1, and then the Treasury just along the road. It is not earmarked to develop the industry, or benefit the Scottish people by easing the impact of public spending cuts. Our seabed revenue is not factored into Scotland’s block grant.
It is surprising that the Scottish government has not challenged the power of the Crown Estate. It is a subject close to the heart of SNP activists, and it fits perfectly with the current campaign for fiscal responsibility. My understanding is that senior civil servants in the rural affairs department are a cautious bunch who dislike change.
Also, a minority government doesn’t want to pick fights unnecessarily, particularly not with an organisation it needs to partner in the development of an important green industry.
But this caution is misplaced. There is the chance to build a cross-party consensus. The Liberal Party in the highlands has spoken out against Crown Estate excesses for years. The West Highland Free Press, the radical newspaper founded by the former Labour minister Brian Wilson, has conducted a long-running campaign questioning its authority.
Andy Wightman, the land reform campaigner, has done a considerable amount of work on the issue. Wightman says the Crown Estate has pursued a successful strategy of confusion. Many people think the land belongs to The Queen. In fact it is a public asset. In 2006, the Crown Estate Review Working Group, formed by local authorities in the highlands and islands, urged Westminster to review the organisation’s post-devolution role and ensure revenues benefited the people of Scotland.
This March, the Treasury Select Committee at Westminster published its own, devastating report. It concluded that Scotland’s territorial seabed and continental shelf area are defined and governed by Scots Law and stated: “As a result of the Scotland Act of 1998, the Scottish parliament can legislate over the extent and nature of Crown property rights in Scotland.”
Effectively it means we can pass a law ensuring the revenue stays in Scotland. This is what happened until 1832 when an Act of Parliament diverted the money south. Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man were affected by similar centralising laws, but have succeeded in getting their cash back. Only Scotland fails to reap the benefits of its long and lucrative coastline.
The election of coalition government in Westminster means we could repatriate the revenue without a Holyrood bill however. A one line change in the Scotland Act is all it takes. A simple matter, since the government has already promised to re-open the Scotland Act post-Calman. And remember the coalition’s Scottish representation comprises mainly Liberals from rural constituencies.
Wightman suggest Marine Scotland should administer and collect the revenues. These could be invested in coastal communities and a national common good fund – similar to the oil fund proposed by the SNP. The Crown Estate, which has a tiny staff in Scotland, is determined not to let go. “Scotland is a goldmine for them,” says Wightman, “they are desperate to keep hold of it.”
The gold plated quango is nervous as well as desperate. Dermot Grimson, its head of external affairs, warned this week that any questioning of its role in Scotland will threaten renewable energy jobs by causing “uncertainty”. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Vested interests cited “uncertainty” as a reason why Scotland should not have its own devolved parliament.
Grimson, who once headed Rural Forum, a campaigning group which collapsed owing more than half a million to creditors, is particularly nervous because Tavish Scott, the Liberal Democrat leader in Holyrood, is pushing for change. Scott has promised to write to his colleague Michael Moore, the Scottish Secretary, calling for marine revenues to be devolved.
Scott should be commended for doing so, though it would be an outrage if he failed to act. The Liberals who hold highland and island seats today benefit from their party’s long association with the land reform movement dating right back to the Crofters War of the 19th century.
The Crown Estate is trying to undermine Scott’s efforts by offering the Scottish government a “memorandum of understanding” on the whole issue. That must not happen as it would pin us to an organisation whose interests are at odds with those of Scotland’s people. When Alex Salmond said that we could become the Saudi Arabian of renewable energy, he didn’t mean we should emulate that country’s feudal system."