Comment: Devolved seabed powers spell promising future for Scotland

Alan Cook, partner and commercial property specialist at legal firm Pinsent Masons. Picture: contributed
Alan Cook, partner and commercial property specialist at legal firm Pinsent Masons. Picture: contributed
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Management of the Scottish seabed is a current topic for developers and those with an interest in offshore renewable energy projects, following the recent transfer of the Crown Estate’s Scottish functions to the control of the Scottish Parliament.

Assets now devolved to Scotland include 37,000 hectares of land, seabed, coastlines and rural estates and cover a wide range of public assets, including the rights to offshore renewable energy zones out to 200 nautical miles.

The Scottish Crown Estate Bill provides for further devolution of certain Crown Estate Scotland (CES) assets to be managed by local authorities, island councils, public bodies and community organisations, and was broadly welcomed by the parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform committee, with members suggesting ways in which it could be strengthened.

The report recommends that management of the seabed should remain at a national level, though it leaves open the potential for local authorities to manage smaller scale wind and wave/tidal projects within twelve nautical miles of shore.

Specifically, the committee recommended that a body with a Scotland-wide overview retain responsibility for the management of offshore renewables, energy-related assets and other cables and pipelines, but that the bill should retain provision for further devolution to occur “where a local authority can demonstrate appropriate expertise and it is considered beneficial from a socio-economic, environmental or sustainable development perspective”.

Should this suggestion be pursued, the renewable energy industry will be concerned to know that the seabed interests for renewable energy projects will be managed efficiently and consistently, and that the extent of local authority boundaries out to sea would also be considered.

Separately, there are encouraging signs contained in a recent CES discussion paper dealing with how future rounds of leasing of the seabed for offshore renewables will be managed under its devolved status.

It is encouraging that CES said it would not be prescriptive in terms of what type of offshore technologies would be adopted, and that opens up the options to look at models other than traditional fixed turbine wind farms.

We have recently seen Statoil launch the world’s first floating wind farm, Hywind, off the Aberdeenshire coast, and an open-minded approach to exploring the benefits of new developments in offshore wind technology will enhance Scotland’s leading reputation in the renewables sector.

While the discussion paper is more evolutionary than revolutionary, and while some of the timeframe targets seem ambitious, on the whole the renewables sector will welcome the opportunity to take part in shaping regulation in this economically important industry.

Although not covered in the discussion paper, another factor at play is how the changing face of traditional oil and gas activity may impact on renewables. As more oil and gas assets come offstream, it frees up more seabed and provides opportunities for new windfarms in areas which were previously off-limits.

It is therefore good to see the publication of Marine Scotland’s Offshore Wind Sectoral Marine Plan Scoping Consultation, the findings of which will form part of the environmental and socio-economic assessment tobe included in the Draft Plan for Offshore Wind Energy, which is expected to be consulted on in 2019.

Potential developers and other stakeholders have just two weeks to comment on the consultation, which closes on 18 July. It is encouraging to see this level of constructive planning for the future of what will continue to be a significant element of Scotland’s economic development.

Alan Cook is partner and renewable energy specialist at Pinsent Masons