Westminster report says Crown Estate acts like “absentee landlord” in Scotland

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By a Newsnet reporter

Commenting on the publication this afternoon of the Scottish Affairs Committee’s highly critical report into the Crown Estate in Scotland, SNP MSP Rob Gibson has said that Michael Moore has been left “isolated on the wrong side of the argument”, and must use this report to deliver a step-change in the UK government’s approach to the Crown Estate’s assets.  The report calls for control of the Crown Estate in Scotland to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

The damning report by Westminster MPs says that the Crown Estate Commission operates with a “lack of accountability and transparency” in Scotland and accuses 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 adds:  “The CEC’s responsibilities for the seabed, the foreshore and other ancient rights in Scotland should be devolved then decentralised as far as possible.

“Devolution to Holyrood should be conditional upon an agreement between the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Scottish Government on how such a scheme of subsidiarity to local authority and local community levels should be implemented.”  

Labour MP Ian Davidson, who chairs the Scottish Affairs Committee, noted that the Crown Estate raises millions of pounds in revenue from Scotland which is not reinvested in Scottish communities.  He called on the Crown Estate Commission to be stripped of its responsibility for marine and coastal assets in Scotland.

In preparing its report, the Committee took evidence from communities in the Northern and Western Isles, Caithness and Argyll.  Mr Davidson noted that the evidence from local people and organisations was highly critical of the Crown Estate Commission.

Mr Davidson said:  “Considering the nature and extent of the problems identified to us, almost exclusively in relation to the marine and coastal assets in Scotland, we have had to conclude that the Crown Estate Commission should no longer be the body responsible in these areas.

“The point is to conserve these assets and maximise the benefits to the island and coastal communities most closely involved with them.”

Gareth Baird, the Crown Estate’s Scottish commissioner, said that the organisation would consider the Scottish Affairs Committee’s report.

Mr Baird said: “Our commitment to Scotland and its economy remains full and whole-hearted, and we’ll be studying the report’s recommendations closely, looking at how we can build on the work of our world-class renewable energy team in supporting the offshore ambitions of the Scottish government and local communities.”

The Crown Estate manages a diverse property portfolio, including mineral and salmon fishing rights, and controls half of the foreshore and almost all of the seabed.  The development of renewable energy projects in Scotland is expected to increase the revenues of the Crown Estate, money which currently goes to the Treasury in London. Renewable energy sources on Crown land in Scotland are forecast to generate up to £49m a year by 2020.  Little of this money returns to Scotland.

The Scottish Government believes that the Crown Estate in Scotland must come under the control of the Scottish Parliament in order to better promote the development of this vital economic sector.

When speaking to the Scottish Affairs Committee last December, Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore ruled out devolution of the Crown Estate and said that it must remain a UK-wide body.  However this contradicted the previous position of the Liberal Democrats, who had supported the devolution of the Crown Estate to Scotland.

In November 2010, Lib Dem MSP for Orkney Liam McArthur called on the UK government to review the role of the Crown Estate and use the Scotland Bill to devolve control to Scotland.  Mr McArthur said:  “The Scotland Bill provides an opportunity to help coastal communities and our aquaculture and marine renewable energy industries. The UK Government should review the Crown Estate’s role in Scotland and look at using the Bill to devolve powers and control over the seabed.”

While leader of the Scottish Lib Dems, Tavish Scott MSP also backed the devolution of the Crown Estate to Scotland, saying:  “The UK Government could give Shetland’s harbours, the aquaculture industry and local marinas a real boost by putting the Crown Estate under local control. […] The days of conflict […] would be put behind us, and Shetland’s maritime future would be all the more secure, if control of the seabed was wrestled away from the Crown Estate.  The proposed changes to the Scotland Act […] give a great opportunity to make this welcome change.”

The Scottish Secretary’s views reflect those of the Conservative led Coalition Government, which opposes the devolution of further powers to Holyrood other than those already detailed in the Scotland Bill.

Mr Gibson – MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross and a long-term campaigner for devolution of the Crown Estate’s assets, commented:

“This is just the latest in a long line of parliamentary inquiries which have backed the devolution of the Crown Estate’s assets to Scotland.

“The two-stage model of devolution proposed by the Scottish Affairs Committee has already been backed by the Scottish Parliament and is the best way to get money invested back into local communities – including those in my own constituency.

“There is now overwhelming support for this to happen – including from the Liberal Democrats themselves.

“The irony is that Mr Moore’s own party was the one UK party that prior to the UK elections was actually agitating for devolution of the Crown Estate, and now even MPs from the other parties are expressing support for devolution, leaving Mr Moore isolated on the wrong side of the argument.”