Yesterday edition of The Independent – 22nd February – carried a full page feature on Alison Nimmo, the new and Scottish CEO of the controversial publicly owned portfolio of rights and assets, now worth around £8 billion – and still known as the ‘Crown Estate’.
This no longer belongs to the monarchy but is a public asset managed by public servants known grandly as ‘Crown Estate Commissioners’ and with its profits going to the UK Treasury – around £2 billion in the last ten years.
Chancellor George Osborne discontinued the Civil List, the way the obvious – but no means all – of the public funding of the monarchy has been managed.
He replaced this by viring to the monarchy 15% of the annual profits from the Crown Estate portfolio. In Aril this year, this will deliver to the royal family an uplift of £5 million on last year. This has to be set against swingeing cuts to public sector services which are seeing, amongst other elements, many clearly disabled people being taken off benefit and pronounced fit to work.
Ms Nimmo went to the Crown Estate portfolio from a role as Design Director with the London Olympic Delivery Authority, giving the go ahead for the venue structures.
The Independent’s article on her was quite revelatory.
Firstly Ms Nimmo made it known emphatically that while the portfolio’s London property assets remain its biggest earner, she intends to gear up its offshore energy activities to overtake and supercede that. She described the issue as ‘how we reinvest and accelerate the growth of offshore’.
The target is to hit a profit of £250 million this year, with offshore energy development a major focus.
This is of great interest to Scotland and to Argyll, with the ‘Crown Estate portfolio’s inclusion of the rights to the Scottish sea bed to the 12 mile limit.
With Argyll, there is, in abeyance for the time being, the prospect of a truly gross offshore wind farm off the little island of Tiree, starting only three miles offshore and occupying an area many times the size of the island itself.
Tiree also faces the additional possibility of two offshore converters, sited only a few kilometres offshore, each the size of Hampden Park national football stadium.
This would all be grist to the financial mills of the Crown Estate portfolio – based well away in London.
The new CEO would not comment on reports that the aim is to see offshore energy contributing 20% of the portfolio’s in the next 8 years.
She has, however, restructured the management of the portfolio to create an Energy Division which is now separate from the traditional maritime business of ports, harbours and moorings, which now sits in the Rural Division.
She talked of the upcoming third round of licensing of offshore wind farms, mentioning nine partners for the Crown Estate Portfolio in a smash and grab raid on the Moray Firth for which major planning applications are now in.
She also spoke of the 35 winf and tidal energy pilot projects now in Orkney waters, most in the Pentland Firth, saying: ‘If we can get government energy policy behind us then we can get the cost down of offshore and develop a British simply chain out of ports like Hull and the Aberdeens of this world. Then this really starts to be part of the energy strategy for the UK but can really contribute to growth.’ (our emphases – and we are interested in quite what she meant by ‘the Aberdeens of this world’).
The Scottish issue
This is where a very interesting matter emerged in the article. While the new CEO refused to be drawn on what might happen following a putative vote for Scottish Independence in the October 2014 referendum,it was not discussed in terms of the Scottish elements in the portfolio being handed over to Scotland, as many have assumed would be the case.
It was spoken of as ‘the possible break up’ of the Crown Estate portfolio.
Now on corporate terms, this is a very different prospect.
This terminology would indicate that what is in mind is the possible separate incorporation of a Scottish operation, which would still be free to shift its profits where it likes, via its corporate parent HQ outside Scotland – to the Westminster treasury.
This would be no different from any of the many Scottish businesses owned elsewhere, with their profits going out of the country.
An eye opener for the naive came in the closing paragraphs of the article where Ms Nimmo was described as currently ‘truing to mollify the Scots with more local management’.
Everything about this underlines the essentially patronising attitudes of the metropolis – in this case the certainty that the natives can easily be ‘mollified’ with a few glass beads. All it takes is a little coastal community funding and a few local management roles and titles to play with and feel important.
The depth of cynicism is everything one would expect; and the old saw about fearing the Greeks bearing gifts could not be more apposite.