My maiden speech to the Scottish Parliament yesterday concerned the need to end the Crown Estate Commissioners writ in Scotland. The injustice of one remote organisation taxing and controlling the seabed is unjust and is preventing the proper development of our offshore renewables industry. The region I represent, the South of Scotland, has planned developments in both the Solway and the North Sea that ought to benefit coastal communities, not an organisation based in Belgravia. I hope we can build consensus on this issue with Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have a track record in land reform. Perhaps when they have got over the shock of the election they will join us in demanding improvements to the Scotland Bill, including the devolution of Crown Estate administration that many of them supported in the past. It is clear that there are progressive people on the Labour benches, for example Neil Bibby and Kezia Dugdale both made good maiden speeches on child poverty and youth unemployment respectively. But as Nicola Sturgeon pointed out in her concluding remarks, you cannot separate such issues from the drive to gain real fiscal powers for the people of Scotland. Then we can take the steps to effectively grow our economy and tackle poverty and inequality. I will spare you the youtube film of the speech. Here are the words from the parliament's official report:
Joan McAlpine (South Scotland) (SNP): I congratulate Graeme Pearson on his election and his maiden speech. I am sure that he will make the same robust contribution to this chamber as he has made to the world of fighting crime. I intend to take a slightly different tone with my maiden speech, however. Five minutes after I was elected, one of my journalistic colleagues asked whether I was going to be a poacher turned gamekeeper. Of course, I completely denied the accusation, but what I have to say may vindicate that journalist, because I intend to break with the tradition of newspaper columnists by complimenting politicians on all sides.
I will consider what the First Minister said today about devolving Crown estate administration to Scotland and show how that is a continuation of some of this Parliament’s achievements.
In the long campaign to have this Parliament established in 1999, one argument was persuasive to unionists as well as to people from my own party. There was general agreement that large areas of Scotland’s governance were neglected, not out of malice or avarice—although some of us did think that—but simply because the UK Parliament did not have time to scrutinise and reform areas of Scottish life that were stuck in the past.
One of those areas was land reform. Although feudalism was abolished elsewhere in Europe centuries ago, in Scotland we were still in the grip of a system that sounded as though it came from the days of Robin Hood, with vassals, sub-vassals, superiorities and burdens. While that sounds comic, it was not funny for those who faced arbitrary charges from absent overlords.
I therefore pay tribute to the Labour and Liberal Democrat Administrations that passed—albeit with Scottish National Party support—the Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc (Scotland) Act 2000. It is to the credit of those previous Administrations that they did not stop at abolishing feudalism, but went on to pass progressive land reform legislation. We now have public rights of access and provision for community ownership as a result.
In Scotland, the ground beneath our feet is more than a mere commodity: it is part of who we are. To put it in the words of the old rousing crofting anthem beloved of Highland Liberals:
“The land, the land,
’Twas God who made the land”
—and so too with the sea. Most Scots find it offensive that the shoreline or the sea bed could be bought and sold, and they are quite right: it cannot be bought and sold. There is a lot of misunderstanding about that issue on all sides of the chamber.
Our shoreline and continental shelf out to the 200-mile limit are public land. They are part of what is called the Crown estate, but that title is misleading and archaic. The Crown estate does not belong to the Queen or any other private individual or organisation: it is public land that falls within the jurisdiction of this Parliament and is subject to Scots law. That assertion does not come from me or the SNP Government: it is the conclusion of the Treasury Select Committee at Westminster, which it reached last year after a lengthy inquiry.
However, by some quirk of history that precious public asset is administered by an unaccountable organisation that calls itself the Crown Estate Commissioners. It is an archaic quango that is based in London’s Belgravia, and it hoovers up the resources from our shores and seas and gives nothing in return.
When the First Minister asserts our rights to the Crown estate, he is not asking for the land: we, the people, already own the land. He is asking that its administration and revenues be transferred back to Scotland, as was the case until 1832. Many of us of different political persuasions already agree on that.
It is not often that you hear someone from the SNP sing the praises of the former Labour minister at Westminster, Brian Wilson MP, but he has been a stalwart campaigner on the Crown estate since the 1970s. He recently wrote in the Aberdeen Press and Journal that he first became interested when the Crown Estate decided to lease sea lochs to multinational salmon companies in the west of Scotland without consulting anyone, not least the affected communities. He said:
“Quite literally, people whose families had lived and worked in these places for generations woke up to find that the entire rights to use of a loch had been flogged off”.
Brian Wilson wants the administration of the Crown estate to be devolved to this Parliament, and so do many Highland Liberals—those that are left. In 2006 no fewer than five Highland Liberal Democrat MPs introduced a Westminster bill that called for the management of the Crown estate to be transferred to the Scottish Parliament. They included one Danny Alexander, who I understand now has some influence in another place.
My favourite quote on the matter is from the member for Shetland, Tavish Scott—it is a shame that he is not here to hear it—who went into battle against the Crown Estate in 2007. He said:
“They tax our aquaculture industry ... our harbours and marinas”,
and that it is unacceptable. He went on to say:
“And, with marine renewable projects in the offing, they will ... tax the wave and tidal power developments and the cables which bring the power ashore.”
Mr Scott showed considerable foresight when he made those remarks back in 2007 because renewables hold the key to prosperity in our country for not just the coastal communities that gain revenue from direct access to the royalties, but Scotland’s cities and urban areas, which will benefit from the manufacturing jobs that, as Iain Gray mentioned earlier, are forecast to come in this sector. However, we need the powers to develop renewables as well as a democratically accountable body in charge of planning, not some unaccountable body based in Belgravia.
I appeal to all sides of the chamber to recognise that the First Minister’s call for devolution of Crown estate management is no radical break; it is actually a continuation of the Parliament’s previous achievements. This is not just a financial issue—it is a moral imperative. This Parliament has, from the outset, paid attention to Scotland. For example, after centuries of stalemate, it abolished feudalism inside two years. Let us hold true to our record and rid Scotland of this relic of the past and impediment to our progress, the Crown Estate Commissioners, and remember instead the crofter’s clarion call that “the land, the land”—and the foreshore—belong to the people of Scotland.