Leader: Marine energy surge must signal sea change for Crown Estate
These questions present themselves as Scottish ministers seek to open talks with the coalition government to make the Crown Estate more accountable to Scottish needs and interests.
For an organisation set up by Act of Parliament, and which owns more than half the UK foreshore, the size of its operations and the diverse range of its portfolio is a constant surprise. As well as substantial holdings off the UK coastline and seabed running to 12 miles offshore, its portfolio encompasses forests, parklands and substantial commercial properties in the heart of London (including almost all of Regent Street and Regent's Park). The "urban portfolio", largely comprising shopping and office developments in south-east England, accounts for most of this. The total capital value of its estate is 6.6 billion.
But what is the Crown Estate for? It clearly sees property activity as a big income source and is attentive to its role as a commercial operator. Is this the priority? But it also owns more than 1,000 listed properties. Does it then have a heritage brief? Its control of the foreshore in Scotland is well known and makes it pivotal in the development of offshore wind and wave power. Its Scottish marine estate generated revenue of 6.8 million last year and the Crown Estate has targeted substantial investment. But is its key focus the development of sustainable energy?
The accounts out earlier this month would seem to indicate yet another purpose. These showed a net profit overall of 211m in the year to end March, which, the report boldly stated, "is paid to the Treasury and helps reduce the fiscal deficit". So is its key focus budget deficit reduction?
The Crown Estate may seek to discharge all of these functions. But the trend in recent decades has been to move away from the conglomerate approach to one more focused, on the grounds that no one organisation can simultaneously excel in so many disparate areas of activity. There has also, of course, been devolution, reflecting the strength of argument that many activities are best managed locally - despite ten years of devolution, the Crown Estate's control of Scottish foreshores remains outwith Scotland. So Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment, should find himself pushing an open door.
Greater transparency of its activities in Scotland and accountability to the Scottish administration would seem to be fair as guiding principles. But what now gives this practical urgency is the increasing importance of marine energy generation, where the Scottish administration has a substantial and growing role. For accountability over foreshores to be left with a multi-function body accountable to a UK administration which may have different priorities looks anomalous.