Crown Estate on “charm offensive,” says councillor Published: 28 February, 2007
THE Crown Estate Commission has started what one councillor described as a “charm offensive” to try to persuade local authorities and politicians that their management role should not be reviewed.
The call for a review was the main recommendation of a report published by six North local authorities and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. The Crown Estate review working group (CERWG) concluded that the Crown Estate in Scotland, including property in Edinburgh, the Glenlivet Estate and the seabed out to 12 miles, is not being managed to bring the most benefit for local communities. Fish and shellfish farmers, and harbour trusts in the Highlands and Islands have also complained that while the CEC imposes rents for their use of the seabed, very little of the money, which goes to the Treasury, is returned to be invested in the area.
The CEC has taken the unprecedented step of circulating copies of its spring 2007 newsletter to all councillors on local authorities from Shetland to Argyll and Bute. There is also a covering letter from Ian Pritchard the head of the Scottish marine estate, which claims that the CERWG report proposes transferring the management and revenues from the seabed to the Scottish Executive, transfer responsibility for the foreshore to local authorities and disposing of all the Crown Estates rural and urban properties in Scotland and this would be damaging.
Councillor Michael Foxley, Highland Councils vice-convener, said he was surprised by the CECs letter. It looks as if the CEC has learned something from the Labour Party and has set up its own rebuttal unit to start a charm offensive. This is an indication that the CERWG report has hit its target fair and square. There is a long record of CEC mismanagement of the seabed, going back to the leases they granted the fish farming industry 30 years ago. Some of the leases were long-term, in the wrong places and no monitoring was done of how the sites were used. There is also a catalogue of dissatisfaction over the CECs management of the seabed in harbour trust areas. They very fact they wont sell areas of seabed to harbour trusts holds back development and the rents they charge, while they might not seem large, over time they take a lot of money out of what are often economically fragile areas, said Councillor Foxley.
The Scottish Executive wrote to harbour authorities last week, asking them to detail their relations and any issues they have with the CECs management of the seabed. They have asked for details of rents paid for the use of the seabed within harbour authority areas, and the effect this is having on developments planned within the harbour areas. The role and functions of the CEC has also been raised by Western Isles MSP Alasdair Morrison with Scottish Secretary Douglas Alexander and First Minister Jack McConnell. Although it is not on the official agenda, the role of the CEC is also to be raised at the Convention of the Highlands and Islands in Stornoway next week.
Councillor Richard Durham, who chaired the CERWG, said the CEC was being disingenuous. The covering letter that came with the colour brochure is simply wrong when it says that the report recommends the disposal of the Crown Estate properties in Scotland. Neither does the report suggest transferring the foreshore, although it is raised as one option. I am greatly encouraged that politicians at Westminster and in Edinburgh are now taking a great interest in this issue, because it is not so long ago that civil servants were saying that they wouldnt touch it. Until now no one appreciated that there was a problem, or an issue to be addressed. This report shows that there is a problem and that it cant be addressed by the CEC. They are in denial, as this letter and brochure shows. I am confident that the process of change has started, said Councillor Durham.
The Scottish Port Authorities asked the Government in 2002 to amend the Crown Estate Act 1961 to free harbour authorities from having to pay rent for the seabed within harbour authority areas. This was refused although most of the authorities said they would prefer the Scottish Executive as their landlord, rather than have to go to the Executive to help with development projects only to see some of the money going out as rent to the CEC.
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