12. March 2012 · Comments Off on Selling the King’s Park, Stirling for £1,000,000 · Categories: Common Good, Crown Estate, Governance, Land Rights, Poor had no Lawyers

Why on earth is an ancient Scottish Royal Park about to be flogged off for a million quid?

King’s Park in Stirling dates back to the 12th century and is a landscape of inestimable historic and cultural importance. If you visit Stirling castle today, you will be impressed at the investment and world class artistic endeavour that has gone into restoring the Great Hall and, most recently, the quite fabulous Renaissance Palace of James V. Head out onto the terrace overlooking the ancient Royal Park used by the Stuart Kings for hunting and sport, however, and you will find no mention of one of Scotland’s most historic landscapes.

The park is Crown land and currently administered by the Crown Estate Commissioners (CEC). The Crown Estate in Scotland is currently the focus of intense political debate and next week, the Scottish Affairs Committee of the House of Commons will publish their long-awaited report into the the subject. With such uncertainty over the future of the Crown Estate in Scotland, why has the CEC been allowed to get away with selling Scotland’s most ancient Royal Park for £1 million?

Over the past 50 years the CEC have managed the park as just another part of their commercial rural estate. Which is why, in 2006, it began secret negotiations to sell Stirling Golf Club the lands which they leased. When news of this broke there was an outcry and Stirling Council then stepped in and agreed to acquire the parkland and land at the back of the castle for £600,000 funded with £150,000 from the Stirling Common Good Fund and £450,000 from the golf club (which would then be granted a 175 year lease).

At which point King’s Park Community Council intervened and tried to stop this deal. Why on earth was land already in public ownership being alienated for 175 years to a private organisation? Why was the Stirling Common good Fund being raided to pay for this? The community came up with an imaginative alternative proposal that would restore this historic landscape as part of the wider restoration of Stirling Castle but both the Secretary of Scotland (Jim Murphy) and the Scottish Government refused to get drawn into the argument. Very soon, however, the deal went cold as the credit crunch hit.

Now, the deal is back on the table. Only this time more land (another 92 acres) is included and the price is over £1 million with the Common Good Fund forking out a whopping £567,000. This represents over 60% of its reserves and for what? This land is Crown land. It is Scottish public land. It should be administered by Scottish Ministers as nearly all other historic castles, palaces and Royal Parks are. No public money is needed to acquire control of this land, least of all the bulk of Stirling’s Common Good Fund.

This deal robs us all of an important national inheritance. It destroys the opportunity to restore this historic landscape and betrays the Crown Estate Commissioners as an organisation out for a quick profit at the expense of Scotland’s heritage.

Plans are underway for the 2014 year of Homecoming and the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. So why, when Scotland is in the midst of such historic times and opportunities, is the Scottish Government sitting idly by whilst a Common Good Fund is raided to pay for public land that already belongs to us only to be given away to a private golf club for 175 years?

It is time to stop this madness now.

03. February 2012 · Comments Off on Radical changes to Scotland Bill on Crown Estate · Categories: Crown Estate, Democracy, Land Rights

For those who have been following the debate about the future administration of the Crown Estate in Scotland will be aware that the Scotland Bill contained two proposed reforms so inconsequential as to be meaningless.

The first was that there would henceforth be a “Scottish Crown Estate Commissioner” who “must be a person who knows about conditions in Scotland as they relate to the functions of the Commissioners.

Haud ma breeks.

The problem has never been that the Crown Estate Commissioners have lacked Scottish representation. The Commission has always had a Scottish Commissioner. From 1962 until the retirement of Ian Grant in 2009 (47 out of the Commission’s 55 year history), there has also been a Scottish Chairman – the Earl of Perth, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, Earl of Mansfield, Sir Denys Henderson and Ian Grant (who was also Scottish Commissioner). It’s been a very Scottish organisation.

The Scotland Bill merely proposes to entrenche this state of affairs in statute.

The second proposal is that the “Scottish Crown Estate Commissioner shall be appointed on the recommendation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who shall consult Scottish Ministers before making that recommendation.”

Riveting stuff.

Now, after over a year of debate and growing calls to eliminate this organisation from any involvement whatsoever in the administration of the Crown Estate in Scotland, the UK government has conceded that the Scotland Bill needs to go further. Thus,in the Committee Stage in the House of Lords, Lord Browne of Ladyton, Lord Boyd of Duncansby and Lord Davidson of Glen Clova tabled amendments 45, 45A and 45B.

Amendment 45 proposes that the statutory Scottish Commissioner shall, instead of being a “a person who knows about conditions in Scotland as they relate to the functions of the Commissioners.“, shall, instead be “qualified in land management or the law of Scotland” and shall have “experience of the functions of the Commissioners.

Amendment 45A proposes that the new statutory Scottish Commissioner shall not be called the “Scottish Crown Estate Commissioner“, but instead will be called the “Crown Estate Commissioner for Scotland.”

Amendment 45B proposes that, instead of being appointed “on the recommendation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who shall consult Scottish Ministers before making that recommendation“, shall be appointed by “Scottish Ministers with the agreement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.”

The Scotland Bill.

Radical stuff.

 

22. December 2011 · Comments Off on Crown Estate VIII · Categories: Crown Estate, Democracy, Governance, Land Rights, Legal affairs, Politics, Poor had no Lawyers

It is long past time that I revisited the topic of the Crown Estate. (see previous posts for further background) since much has been happening over the past few months.

First of all, a bit of background.

The Crown Estate in Scotland is a collection of property, rights and interests administered and managed by the Crown Estate Commissioners (CEC) who (confusingly and erroneously) continue to call themselves “The Crown Estate”. Be that as it may – the debate today in Scotland is about whether the CEC should continue to manage this diverse and distinct Scottish public estate or whether its role and responsibilities should be devolved to Scotland.

Serious debate in recent years about the future administration and management of the Crown Estate began with the work of the Crown Estate Review Working Group comprising local authorities in the Highlands and Islands together with COSLA and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Their detailed and authoritative report was published in 2007 and is required reading for anyone who wishes to obtain more information on the history of the Crown Estate and the operation of the CEC. Despite some attention from the Scottish Parliament, neither the Scottish Government nor the UK Government paid much heed to its recommendations. The Treasury Select Committee at Westminster then took up the question in an inquiry conducted before the last Westminster election in 2010. (1) There then followed the publication of the Scotland Bill on 30 November 2010 with two minor proposals for reform (so minor as to be inconsequential) accompanied by a rather incoherent and error-strewn Command Paper.

The Scotland Bill was then the subject of scrutiny both by the Scotland Bill Committee of the Scottish Parliament chaired by Wendy Alexander MSP and by the Scottish Affairs Committee (SAC) of the House of Commons. A large number of submissions of evidence were made to both committees in support of reform of how the Crown Estate is administered and at this stage the topic began to assume a higher political profile. Indeed, so impressed were the Scottish Affairs Committee with the level of interest shown in the matter that they announced in February 2011 that they would hold a separate inquiry into the Crown Estate in Scotland. Following the SNP victory at the May 2011 election, Alex Salmond announced that devolving control over the Crown Estate was one of his priorities. Finally, a new Scotland Bill Committee of the Scottish Parliament was established with an SNP majority of MSPs. It has just published its final report. Meanwhile the Scottish Affairs Committee has just held its final evidence session and will report shortly.

So, where stand things now?

Well, the short answer is that a wide range of individuals and organisations including harbour trusts, local authorities, enterprise agencies, voluntary bodies and community groups would like to see the end of the CEC in Scotland. The Scottish Government has made it clear that it wishes all the current powers of the CEC to be devolved. Meanwhile, Michael Moore, the Secretary of State for Scotland, has indicated he is willing to consider the case for change but, for now at least, is of the view that the CEC should remain a UK body.

But what is really going on?

It is perhaps obvious but is nevertheless worth stressing that the future of the Crown Estate in Scotland is now the subject of an undeclared political fight between the UK Government and the recently-elected SNP administration whose policy of independence they oppose and this thus colours relations between the two governments.

However, the volume of evidence and debate that has taken place so far reveals a very clear picture set apart from any party political struggles. This is most evident in the recently published report of the Scottish Parliament’s Scotland Bill Committee. In their 45 recommendations, only 15 were unanimously endorsed by all Committee members, the remaining 30 being agreed by all SNP members but dissented from (or were the subject of a split vote to remove) by the LIberal Democrat, Conservative and Labour members.

Significantly, one of those 15 related to the Crown Estate.

“The Committee has been struck by the degree to which the more we have learnt and understood about the Crown Estate in Scotland and the operations of the CEC here, the clearer and more compelling the case has become for change” (2)

Recommendation 35 is that “The Committee recommends that there should be further devolution with different outcomes to match the nature and circumstances of the various Crown property, rights and interests involved”

This outbreak of harmony is most welcome and reflects the volume of evidence that has accumulated on the topic and the serious intent of all members of the Scotland Bill Committee.

In the minority report the Lib Dem/Lab and Con MSPs do nuance their position on the topic by stating that further consideration should be given to how any devolution might work and that they do not think that any reform should be taken forward in the context of the Scotland Bill beyond what is already proposed. However, they are not averse to more of the functions discharged by the Commissioners being devolved (3)

In an important passage, the Committee notes Michael Moore’s three tests for any further proposals for devolution, namely that

“Any further proposals for consideration must be based on three key tests, if I may put it that way. They must be based on detailed proposals and be capable of establishing a broad consensus, and they should, while clearly benefiting Scotland, not be detrimental to the rest of the United Kingdom.” (4)

It is clear from the evidence to the Committee and their own report that these three tests are already met. Detailed proposals were put forward in the written evidence around which there is a broad consensus including in the Committee itself. The benefits to Scotland are clear in terms of accountability, improved governance and a greater role for local interests. And the impact of devolution would have minimal consequences for the rest of the UK.

Neverthless, the UK Government appears to be unmoved by these arguments and the focus thus moves now to the Scottish Affairs Committee which, through its dedicated inquiry has assembled a great deal of evidence in writing, in oral sessions and from field visits around Scotland. The Committee has now held the last of its evidence sessions and its final report is anticipated in late January or February of 2012. The mood of the Committee is for change – in the words of the Chairman, Ian Davidson MP, “the status quo is not defensible” (5)

SAC seem inclined to recommend greater local control of the Crown Estate and their approach to this is borne out of not only the evidence they have heard but also of the partisan nature of the relationship between Labour and the SNP at Westminster and Holyrood. (6) Put bluntly, key members of the Committee appear to be wary of a power grab by Holyrood. this is not entirely fair since, in their paper (page 5), the Scottish Government make clear that they favour further devolution to local authorities and communities. However, their failure to develop any detailed proposals for how this might work in practice does not help their case since it allows the SAC to portray their approach as “entirely vacuous” in Ian Davidson’s words. (7)

The fundamental question is where should legislative competence lie over the administration of the property, rights and interests that comprise the Crown Estate in Scotland. If it is to remain in Westminster and the UK Government is persuaded that local communities should benefit more then the onus is on them to pass legislation to that effect. This is highly unlikely. The only realistic option is to devolve legislative competence over the the administration of these rights to the Scottish Parliament which can then consult and legislate for further devolution to local authorities and communities.

Which leads me to conclude by observing that reform is now the public view of the Scottish Government, the Scotland Bill Committee and the Scottish Affairs Committee. The one party that now stands exposed is Michael Moore and the UK Government. For a flavour of their position, watch the evidence of Moore, David Mundell and the Treasury at the Scottish Affairs Committee on 14 December 2011 as they seek the defend a position that is increasingly untenable. There is also a rather embarrassing moment (not picked up on by MPs) when Paula Diggle, the Treasury Officer of Accounts states (in an attempt to be helpful) that,

“The Queen owns the property of the Crown Estate and she owns it by right of her place as the monarch. However, the Government, under the statute of 1961 and indeed under the Civil List Act 1952, get the revenue of the Crown Estate. That is how it works.” (8)

This is, of course, complete and utter nonsense. As this historical essay by George P Best, Assistant Commissioner of the Office of Woods, Forests and Land Revenues (a predecessor of the CEC) demonstrates, the Crown Estate is owned by the Crown and not the Queen who has no entitlement to the Crown Estate revenues. Crown revenues were historically the source of funds to run the country and pay for HM Ambassadors, HM Royal Navy etc. Since 1688, these obligations have gradually been taken over by Parliament as Britain became a constitutional Monarchy. In Scotland, as in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Crown Estate is public land.

The investigations to date have provided valuable information and insights leading to a greater understanding of the nature of the Crown Estate and its administration. The fact that a senior Treasury official remains so spectacularly ill-informed suggests that the UK Government is yet to take the issue seriously. It is to be hoped that the forthcoming report of the Scottish Affairs Committee will help focus minds in Whitehall and that the days of the CEC in Scotland are numbered.

(1) See Treasury Committee Eighth Report 30 March 2010

(2) para 113, Report on the Scotland Bill, Volume I, December 2011

(3) Volume 2 Annex A pp. 153 & 163

(4) Evidence from Michael Moore to Scotland Bill Committee 8 September 2011, Col. 54

(5) Uncorrected Evidence, 7 December 2011 Q437

(6) See, for example the tetchy exchange between Jim McGovern MP at Q673, Uncorrected Evidence, 12 December 2011.

(7) Uncorrected Evidence, 12 December 2011 Q665.

(8) Uncorrected Evidence, 14 December 2011 in response to Q817.

To assist those interested in following this debate, I have published links to some of the key documents and evidence on my website here.