Joan McAlpine: A sea change required to end this revenue drain
A swelling tide of opinion insists that Scotland has the right to ownership of any income generated offshore
MICHAEL Moore's response to Alex Salmond's demand that Scotland retain its own revenue from the crown estate will have caused quite a few sharp intakes of breath among those who understand the subject. The Scottish Secretary suggested that he would like to hear more about this proposal, and urged the Scottish Government to provide details. This particular "ask" is one of the First Minister's three demands to improve The Scotland Bill - the others being more borrowing powers and the devolution of corporation tax.
Don't be fooled by the tenor of Mr Moore's "Yes Minister" response, eg "what a novel idea, pray tell us more". The Liberal Democrats are well aware of widespread unhappiness regarding the crown estate. Indeed for many years it was the Lib Dems, formerly of various highland parishes, who led the charge against this feudal relic.
Repatriation of crown estate revenues to Scotland (as happened up until the early 19th century) might appear obscure to the average onlooker. But though it may have a Ruritarian ring to it, the crown estate is key to Scotland's future prosperity. For those townies who have never had cause to navigate a harbour or lift a mooring, the crown estate has nothing to do with The Queen these days. It is common land which includes around half of Scotland's foreshore and our seabed out to the12 mile limit. It has rights to renewable energy and gas storage to the 200 mile limit.
This watery domain is administered by an organisation that grandly titles itself "The Crown Estate Commission" (CEC), and has claimed, erroneously, that it owns the land. In fact, it does not even manage it - that suggests some benign, improving role. The CEC simply takes. It sets arbitary charges, then hoovers up the revenue into its pucka London offices off Regent Street. Any surplus goes to The Treasury down the road.
The CEC habit of charging local people for use of a community asset makes it very unpopular -for example it bullies small boat owners, whom it has taken to court to over mooring charges. Such behaviour has caused real anger over many years. Tavish Scott, the outgoing Scottish Liberal Democrat leader and MSP for Shetland sounded like the Robin Hood of the high seas back in 2007 when he said: "The Crown Estate's control of Shetland's seabed, and the taxes they levy on Shetland, are unacceptable. They tax our aquaculture industry and our harbours and marinas. They even seek royalty payments when a harbour authority wants to dredge the seabed to improve navigation and to offset the cost by using the dredged material elsewhere.
And, with marine renewable projects in the offing, they will control and tax the wave and tidal power developments and the cables which bring the power ashore. The time has come for control of the seabed to be passed from London to the communities who depend on the coastal waters.
Mr Scott and Mr Moore's Liberal Democrat collegue, the MP John Thurso, also took up the cudgels several years ago when he claimed the crown estate was hampering the development of offshore renewables by failing to issue licenses on time. The very fact that energy companies must go through the CEC to obtain permission for offshore wind or marine power is a nonsense. Marine Scotland, an agency of the Scottish Government, is responsible for the maintenance of the seabed and has considerably more expertise in the area.
Mr Moore could get all the information he needed on the crown estate from John Thurso. But he needn't stop there. In 2006 six local authorities across the Highlands and Islands, along with Highlands and Islands Enterprise, commissioned a report into the operation of the CEC in Scotland which said the organisation brought no benefit.
Last year, no less than the House of Commons Treasury Committee reached similar conclusions in its own extensive enquiry. Significantly, the committee noted that the crown estate lands were subject to the jurisdication of Scots Law and the Scottish Parliament. Therefore there is no reason why the Scottish Parliament could not legislate to get back the money - as already happens in Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man. We already have a precedent as the Scottish parliament legislated over crown rights in its land reform legislation.
However our pre-eminent land ownership expert, Andy Wightman, says a simple clause in the Scotland Bill currently going through Westminster would repatriate the revenue more quickly. Perplexingly, the Liberal Democrats who are now in government failed to support SNP amendments intended to do this. So did Labour, despite the fact that the former minister Brian Wilson - no friend of the Nats or devolution generally - has been a stalwart campaigner against the abuses of the crown estate in the Western Highlands.
Instead, the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster has announced yet another inquiry into the subject. They could have saved themselves the trouble by reading the Scottish government's own consultation document, Securing the Benefits of Scotland's Next Energy Revolution, published by rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead last year. Responses to the consultation, from renewables groups and local authorities are overwhelmingly in favour of the crown estate being run for the benefit of local communities.
There is also a moral argument. Approximately 155 billion in direct tax revenue from oil and gas since 1976-77 has flowed to the UK Government. Adjusted for inflation, this is equivalent to 269 billion at 2008 prices or nine times the annual Scottish Government budget. There is little Scotland can do now to get that money back. But we can ensure that our future energy bonanza is not similarly appropriated.
• Joan McAlpine is SNP MSP for the South of Scotland
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