The Crown Estate Commission has been the subject of profound criticism by the Westminster parliament’s Scottish Affairs Committee, who found it to be lacking in ‘accountability and transparency’. On the basis of the facts they could have done little else.
The committee also suggested that the Commission’s authorities should be devolved to the local communities where the public rights and assets they manage are based.
Although the Commissioners already had the reassurance that the UK government was not minded to take this route, they moved quickly to seize the initiative, make minor concessions presented as substantial and retain control of the management of their affairs.
They are making much of the fact that they are giving up control over what are described as ‘strips of land’ in Edinburgh’s West Princes Street Gardens.
Alongside this, their relinquishing of what are called ‘some fishing rights’ turn out to amount to no more than the Scottish rights to fish for wild oysters and mussels – hardly an enforeceable earner.
They are also – belatedly – making a gesture towards embracing the tartan.
Upon devolution, the two anachronistic bodies managing Scottish rights and assets – the Forestry Commission and the Crown Estate Commission took very different courses of action.
The Forestry Commission voluntarily became a Scottish Government agency, Forestry Commission Scotland and has been markedly go-ahead in modernising attitudes to forests and the role they play in community life and leisure. They have presided over the sale of parcels of forest to support community sustainability.
The Crown Estate Commission, however, decamped to London in short order, closing its Scottish office in Edinburgh and obliterating the accounting distinction between the Scottish rights and performances it manages and the rights and assets it manages elsewhere in the UK.
It was no longer possible to see the detail of the annual capital and revenue generation from these Scottish resources. Some changes were consequently made to this convenient merging of accounts.
The Scottish rights and assets – worth a tartan kiss or two – are now to be managed exclusively from Scotland, from an Edinburgh HQ, with the Scottish Commissioner, Gareth Baird, now given a formal role as Chair of a new Board and take responsibility for all Scottish operations.
He will have two new senior managers in support, also to be Edinburgh based.
Unsurprisingly, the language being used around these new arrangements is all about their determination to support inward investment for Scotland, job creation for Scotland…. The only surprise is that this egregious list of beneficence supplied to Scotland did not include fish farms for Scotland; offshore wind and marine energy for Scotland; marinas for Scotland; moorings for Scotland etc. The Crown Estate Commission earns a great deal of revenue from such resources.
It can well afford to toss away a few rights to fishing for oysters and mussels – and it intends itself to determine to whom it transfers these rights.
The UK government – and, it has to be said, the Scottish Government for all the muted mutterings it has made from time to time – is hopelessly in thrall to tradition and will do nothing to displace this unaccountable, opaque and autocratic relic of times well past.
It’s not actually the lost revenue that sticks in the craw, although it does.
It’s the infuriating principle of needless subservience, the source of which no longer even exists. These rights and assets do not belong to the Monarch. The Commissioners have been reminded by an unusually spirited Public Accounts Select Committee that they are ‘public servants, managing a public asset, in the public interest’.
The paralysing of progress in the failure to modernise a body that simply cannot belong in any thinking contemporary structure of governance is unacceptable.