Scottish Secretary to study Crown Estate report –

Scottish Secretary to study Crown Estate report Published:  11 February, 2007

THE Secretary of State for Scotland, Douglas Alexander, has promised to examine closely a report commissioned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise and six north local authorities which concluded that the management of the Crown Estate, including the seabed, could be greatly improved to benefit local communities.

Under devolution the Scottish Parliament can legislate over the ownership and use of the Crown’s property rights in Scotland, but the administration and revenues of the Crown rights are reserved to Westminster and come under the Secretary of State for Scotland. The report concluded that there was, “a lack of accountability in Scotland over the Crown Estate Commission’s operations in Scotland and the limited benefits in Scotland from its management of the Scottish resources which form the Crown Estate in Scotland.”

From an initial indication that the UK Government intended to take no action, following a meeting with MSPs Alasdair Morrison and Peter Peacock, Mr Alexander appears to have opened the door to some changes to the Crown Estate’s management. He said: “I want to explore more fully, with the First Minister and Whitehall colleagues, how far the issues can be adequately addressed within existing structures. Some of the issues in the report may well be the subject of further consideration in the context of the Government’s plans for the marine environment.”

The report proposes that the UK Government could extend the devolution process by changing the Crown Estate Commission in one of three ways: through change within the existing structure, and advisory committee reporting to the Scottish Parliament could be established, developing policies tailored to Scottish circumstances; partial devolution involving a restructuring similar to the Forestry Commission, with a distinct Crown Estate operation in Scotland which acts as part of the Executive, to manage the Crown estate to deliver Executive priorities; or full devolution through UK legislation which would return to Scotland the administration and revenues of the property rights and interests of the Crown in Scotland, currently managed as part of the Crown Estate. That could open the way to parts of the seabed and foreshore being sold or leased to community groups for harbour or renewable energy developments.

Alasdair Morrison said: “I am very encouraged that Douglas Alexander has taken on the issue and intends to speak to colleagues north and south of the border. The reaction from the Crown Estate Commission to the report was surprising and avoided the questions the report posed. In the final analysis, they are answerable to the Government. A process has started where we hope to see a total reformation of the Commission.”

The Crown Estate in Scotland is valued at £216.5m and made a profit in 2005 of £11.5m for the UK Treasury. The Crown Estate Commission (CEC) controls half of Scotland’s foreshore and most of the seabed out to a distance of 12 miles. Over £2m of its income comes from fish farm rents and over £8 million from property and land, including part of Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh.

Ian Grant, Chairman of The Crown Estate, said: “Without having seen a copy of the letter in question it is difficult to comment on its contents. However a recent letter from the Secretary of State for Scotland to the chair of the Crown Estate Review Working Group indicated that benefits to Scotland were, and could continue to be, delivered under the current arrangements with the Crown Estate. The Crown Estate has unrivalled knowledge and experience of the marine and coastal environment and already works closely with Government, the energy sector, ports and harbours, environmental groups and others. The fragmentation of responsibility would be costly, result in the loss of a great depth of expertise and would not be in the interest of Scotland’s marine communities and businesses.”

Mr Morrison said that the changes that had taken place in the Forestry Commission were a useful starting template for reform of the Crown Estate Commission. “The Forestry Commission works throughout the UK, but it is devolved and we should have a similar model for the Crown Estate to enable the communities to be involved in the policy and decision-making of the Crown Estate. These are early days because Mr Alexander has just seen the report, which destroys a lot of the myths about the Crown Estate. A lot of us thought it was untouchable, but this report proves that isn’t the case, and it gives us a chance to progress. A lot is about to happen in coastal waters including the development of offshore windfarms and I would hope the Crown Estate Commission will be changed to be made much more accountable to the coastal communities that will be affected,” said Alasdair Morrison.

Peter Peacock, who campaigned for change in the role of the Crown Estate, while he served on Highland Council, said: “I have been pursuing change for some time. The report made fascinating reading and revealed a lot of detail that people hadn’t known about the Crown Estate before. We had a very good conversation with Douglas Alexander and he is taking a close interest in the issue. People want to see some progress made on this issue.”