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By Martin Kelly
The Liberal Democrats have been accused of betrayal after much vaunted changes to how the Crown Estate is administered in Scotland failed to materialise.
In an announcement today, it has emerged that proposals to transfer control over Scotland’s coastline and seabed have been ignored by the coalition Government.
Instead, a series of minor changes have been announced which include handing over the right to fish for oysters and mussels and a control over a few areas of Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh.
The failure to implement any meaningful changes comes despite a report in March this year by the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, which accused the Crown Estate Commission of operating with a "lack of accountability and transparency" in Scotland.
The report said: "At best, [the Crown Estate] has little regard for those needs and interests other than where it serves Crown Estate Commission's business interests.
"At worst, it behaves as an absentee landlord or tax collector which does not re-invest to any significant extent in the sectors and communities from which it derives income."
The report added: "The CEC's responsibilities for the seabed, the foreshore and other ancient rights in Scotland should be devolved then decentralised as far as possible.”
Commenting at the time, Gareth Baird, the Crown Estate's Scottish Commissioner, said that the organisation would consider the Scottish Affairs Committee's recommendations.
Mr Baird said: "Our commitment to Scotland and its economy remains full and whole-hearted, and we'll be studying the report's recommendations closely, looking at how we can build on the work of our world-class renewable energy team in supporting the offshore ambitions of the Scottish government and local communities."
However, today’s news that there will be no meaningful change and the resource will continue under the control of the London based organisation was met with anger and disappointment.
Commenting on the announcement and the implications for Scottish Crown Estate assets, Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead said:
“This is a missed opportunity by the UK Government for much needed accountability of the Crown Estate. These developments do not go far enough and greater transparency is needed over all Crown Estate functions in Scotland."
Mr Lochhead called the concessions “limited and reluctant” and said Scotland deserved better than “centralised London control” adding:
“Rather than being determined to hold on to the Crown Estate at any cost, the UK government should relinquish responsibility and devolve control to the Scottish Parliament and Scotland's communities.”
The Crown Estate manages a diverse property portfolio, including mineral and salmon fishing rights, and controls half of the Scottish foreshore and almost all the seabed.
The development of renewable energy projects in Scotland is expected to increase the revenues of the Crown Estate, money which currently goes to the Treasury in London. Renewable energy sources on Crown land in Scotland are forecast to generate up to £49m a year by 2020. There is already concern that little of this money will return to Scotland.
Figures published last year show that the value of Scottish property assets increased by 13 per cent to £207.1 million in 2010. This included a 42 per cent increase in the value of the marine estate, largely due to offshore renewables.
The Scottish Government believes that control over the revenues and management of the Crown Estate in Scotland should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament in order to maximise the benefit to Scotland from our enormous offshore renewable energy resources.
When speaking to the Scottish Affairs Committee last December, Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore ruled out devolution of the Crown Estate and said that it must remain a UK-wide body. However this contradicted the previous position of the Liberal Democrats, who had supported the devolution of the Crown Estate to Scotland.
In November 2010, Lib Dem MSP for Orkney Liam McArthur called on the UK government to review the role of the Crown Estate and use the Scotland Bill to devolve control to Scotland. Mr McArthur said: "The Scotland Bill provides an opportunity to help coastal communities and our aquaculture and marine renewable energy industries. The UK Government should review the Crown Estate's role in Scotland and look at using the Bill to devolve powers and control over the seabed."
While leader of the Scottish Lib Dems, Tavish Scott MSP also backed the devolution of the Crown Estate to Scotland, saying: "The UK Government could give Shetland's harbours, the aquaculture industry and local marinas a real boost by putting the Crown Estate under local control. […] The days of conflict [...] would be put behind us, and Shetland's maritime future would be all the more secure, if control of the seabed was wrestled away from the Crown Estate. The proposed changes to the Scotland Act [...] give a great opportunity to make this welcome change."
Other Lib Dems who have stated publicly they are in favour of control passing to Scotland include MP Alastair Carmichael and senior Lib Dem Cllr Michael Foxley.
Speaking in September 2010, Alastair Carmichael MP said: “Ultimately I would like to see control of the seabed removed from the Crown Estate and given to the communities who rely on it”.
SNP MSP, Rob Gibson condemned the LibDems for “betraying Scotland” by failing to fight for devolution of the Crown Estate.
Mr Gibson, who is the MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross and a long-term campaigner for devolution of the Crown Estate's assets, said:
"Once again the Lib Dems have betrayed Scotland and, in particular, let down our highlands and islands communities.
"The UK Government's response is extremely disappointing - we have no additional devolution, no transfer of real responsibility and no progress for communities affected by the Crown Estate
"This is not responsive to Scottish interests and nor does it serve the needs of our communities.
"We need complete responsibility for the Crown Estate but it is clear the UK Government does not want to deliver this.
"For those highlands and islands and coastal communities seeking influence over the Crown Estate it is clear the only way they will see local control is with a Yes vote for independence.
"The bitter irony is that in opposition the Lib Dems were active in agitating for devolution of the Crown Estate. Today's underwhelming announcement shows that they have abandoned their campaign.
"Not only has the party turned its back on its own beliefs, it is also ignoring the cross-party calls from the Scotland Bill committee supporting Scotland gaining full control."