Frustration at Crown Estate snub to Scottish communities

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By Bob Duncan

Coastal communities in the Highlands and Islands are becoming increasingly frustrated by the intransigence of the London-based Crown Estates Commission, and are calling for the assets and income managed by the Commissioners to be devolved to Scotland and to the communities themselves.

There is growing anger at what many view as a snub by the body, who administer large swathes of Scotland’s coastline and offshore assets, after it refused to hand over control of resources to local communities despite recommendations to do so.

The Crown Estate manages a diverse portfolio in Scotland including five rural estates, mineral and salmon fishing rights, as well as about half of the foreshore and almost the entire seabed.  Its coastal sites specialise in marine renewable energy and aquaculture, while its 37,000 hectares of rural property include nine Sites of Special Scientific Interest.  Currently all profits from Scotland go straight to the UK Treasury in London.

The estate is owned by the Crown and managed by an independent board known as the Crown Estate Commissioners. The estate’s revenues do not belong to the monarch, nor to the Crown Estates Commission, which simply acts as a factor, and surplus revenue from its £7bn-worth of business is paid each year to the Treasury for the benefit of all UK taxpayers.

The UK Treasury was last week accused of acting like Marie Antoinette before the French Revolution, after it announced it would give Scots bodies the right to fish for oysters and mussels, while keeping control of the earning potential of the seabed to themselves.  Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee had earlier this year urged the commission to hand its powers to the coastal communities instead.

The Crown Estates’ response has been limited to a couple of local management agreements for Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh and inshore waters in the islands and the right to take over some shellfish fisheries.

Campaigners say these concessions are completely worthless and the Commission is blocking their attempts to develop projects for their communities.

The Glenelg and Arnisdale trust, for example, are trying to build a tidal power project in the narrows between Glenelg in the West Highlands and Kylerhea on the Isle of Skye – just a few hundred yards away.  This would be submerged in the fast tidal flow near the route of the community owned and operated ferry and would provide income to further the development of the area.

The trust have been talking to First Minister Alex Salmond about their idea and they are encouraged by the First Minster’s responses so far.  It’s a plan for all of the west coast, says the trust, not just for the Kyles communities.

They propose that they be given grant money to build the first project, which can act as a template for other projects on the west coast of Scotland. They would pay the grant back over a period of time which would create an ongoing fund to pay for future projects in other communities.

However, the trust says that dealing with the Crown Estates Commissioners has been much more problematic.  The Commissioners initially dismissed the community’s ideas out of hand, and have given the impression that they are not prepared to listen to Scottish coastal communities, their needs or their ideas.

This view of the commissioners is shared by communities and bodies across the highlands and islands, leading to calls for the business of the Crown Estates to be devolved to the communities from where it collects its income.

In March a damning report by Westminster MPs said that the Crown Estate Commission operates with a “lack of accountability and transparency” in Scotland and accused the organisation of acting like an absentee landlord.
 
The report said: “At best, [the Crown Estate] has little regard for those needs and interests other than where it serves Crown Estate Commission’s business interests.
 
“At worst, it behaves as an absentee landlord or tax collector which does not re-invest to any significant extent in the sectors and communities from which it derives income.”
 
The report said: “The CEC’s responsibilities for the seabed, the foreshore and other ancient rights in Scotland should be devolved then decentralised as far as possible.”

Last week the UK Treasury ruled out devolving the Crown Estate in Scotland and will leave it instead to continue to be administered by the unelected Crown Estate Commission (CEC) which is based in London.

The concessions announced last week were described by campaigners as “utterly trifling”.  However, the Treasury responded by saying: “The Government recognises the committee’s concerns, but is not persuaded the proposals for devolution would offer the best solution to these problems.

“After careful consideration, the Government has concluded there are strengths in the existing arrangements which should be retained as a matter of public interest.  For instance, the Crown Estate’s unified management framework provides an incentive to investment in offshore renewable energy.”

The Crown Estate’s Scottish Commissioner, Gareth Baird, said: “We are serious about changing the way we do business in Scotland and the reforms we are announcing today acknowledge that we could have been more responsive to local communities in the past.

“They will ensure that in addition to delivering new inward investment, business and job opportunities in Scotland, our energy, rural and coastal businesses will be able to respond more effectively to the Scottish communities in which they operate.”

Dr Michael Foxley, former LibDem leader of Highland Council who has campaigned for reform of the CEC for more than 25 years, said the concessions were “utterly trifling”. “It is the Treasury’s equivalent of Marie Antoinette, but ‘Let them eat mussels instead of cake’. It is quite appalling for the Treasury to come up with this.”

David Cameron, chairman of Community Land Scotland, which works with communities in the process of taking ownership of public land, said “We are disappointed the Government has missed an opportunity to join the consensus for fundamental change in the way the Crown Estate is managed. The case for that change is undiminished.

“The report is somewhat contradictory in appearing to offer future opportunities through local management agreements, while also appearing to rule out transfer of control of vital local assets.

“While continuing to advocate more fundamental change, we will test the boundaries of what may be possible within the local management agreements that are proposed.

“We are not interested in token arrangements, we want our communities to have a real stake in the future ownership and management of their marine resources and to use those assets to grow their local economy – we are looking for access to assets that have real economic value to local communities.”

SNP Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lockhead said: “This is a missed opportunity by the UK Government for much-needed accountability of the Crown Estate. These developments do not go far enough and greater transparency is needed over all Crown Estate functions in Scotland.”

He added: “Scotland deserves better than a limited and reluctant release of the Crown Estate assets from centralised London control.

“Rather than being determined to hold on to the Crown Estate at any cost, the UK government should relinquish responsibility and devolve control to the Scottish Parliament and Scotland’s communities.”

Although the portfolio is owned by the Crown, any revenue goes to the Treasury in exchange for the Civil List grant, in an arrangement dating back to 1760.  The revenue from the Crown Estates was surrendered to the exchequer in exchange for the setting up of the civil list to pay for Royal expenses and living costs.

This arrangement is now being scrapped and a new Sovereign Grant funding model is being introduced.  Under the new grant, the Queen will receive 15% of all profits from the £7 billion Crown Estate.

Figures show that the value of Scottish property assets increased by 13 per cent in 2010 to £207.1 million.  This included a 42 per cent increase in the value of the marine estate, largely due to offshore renewables.