Image: Land Reform Minister, Aileen McLeod at launch of Land Reform Bill with Carluke Development Trust. Photo by Scottish Government.

UPDATE 13 August 2015 My Written Evidence to the Rural Affairs Committee

The Land Reform (Scotland) Bill was published by the Scottish Parliament on 22 June 2014. The Rural Affairs, Environment and Climate Change Committee has issued a call for evidence on the general principles of the Bill at its Stage 1 scrutiny in Parliament. The call for evidence closes at 1700hrs on Friday 14 August 2015.

I have prepared a Briefing on the Bill designed to provide a non-exhaustive analysis and to help those wishing to submit evidence.

The Bill forms part of a much wider programme of land reform. Other ongoing work by government includes reform to succession law, council tax, private rented housing, land registration and compulsory purchase law. The Bill should thus be seen as part of a wider programme and not the sum total of land reform measures. It should also be stressed that, as the first two parts of the Bill make clear, land reform is a process that will necessarily not be concluded by the end of this Parliament. Indeed it will probably take a generation before Scotland’s land governance is set on anything like a modern footing.

The Bill itself contains welcome measures and these are analysed in the briefing. The most worrying aspect of the Bill as it stands is the abandonment of proposals made in the December 2014 Consultation to bar companies in offshore tax havens from holding title to land and property in Scotland. This would have been a progressive move and one in which Scotland could have been taking the lead in a UK context. Instead, the Bill proposes a meaningless right to request information.

Last month, Private Eye revealed that over 750,000 acres of land in Scotland – an area larger than Ayrshire – was held in tax havens. It applauded Nicola Sturgeon for taking a lead in tackling the problem. Their enthusiasm was premature.

Prime Minister David Cameron has announced plans to publish details of offshore corporate ownership in the English and Welsh Land Registry and pressure from NGOs like Transparency International to clamp down on the use of offshore shell companies is proving effective in westminster. The Scottish Government, however, now finds itself being outflanked by the Tories in efforts to crack down on secrecy and tax evasion. The Scottish Parliament has an important role in scrutinising exactly why this has happened.

Other parts of the Bill are broadly welcome though important matters remain to be debated further as the Bill proceeds through Parliament.



There is a lot of complete nonsense being spun in the media today about the alleged refusal of Scotland to contribute to the financial support of the Royal family. Front page splashes on the Times and the Telegraph has been gleefully picked up by broadcasters and others. The population  has now been led to believe that Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government are somehow snubbing the Queen and refusing to pay a fair share of the costs of maintaining her in the style to which she is accustomed,

We have been here before.

Last December, the journalist Hamish Macdonnell spun stories in the Daily Mail and the Spectator. I debunked them here.

So what are the facts?

The Crown Estate is public land and the Crown Estate Commissioners a statutory corporation responsible for managing the Crown Estate. The net revenues from the Crown Estate are public revenues which are currently paid to HM Treasury.

The Royal Family is financed by through a Sovereign Grant established under the Sovereign Grant Act 2011. Section 1 of the Act provides that the Grant is paid by the Treasury each year from funds voted by Parliament (the UK Parliament).

The Scottish Government has no responsibility whatsoever to provide any funding for the Royal Family since it is a reserved matter. Scottish taxpayers pay towards the Sovereign Grant in the same way as they contribute to all areas of reserved expenditure.

The sum of money comprising the Grant is calculated by reference to the net surplus revenue paid to the Treasury by the Crown Estate Commissioners. The first step in the calculation (Section 6 of the Act) is to calculate 15% of the revenue in the financial year two years prior.

The money is not paid directly from the net Crown Estate revenues. That would be illegal. The Crown Estate revenues are merely used as a reference point. Other reference points could (and should have) been used.

I suggested at the time the Bill was rushed through Parliament (see here and here) that the profits of the Stilton cheese industry might be a candidate. Ian Davidson MP suggested GDP. George Osborne himself said “I completely accept that I could have brought other mechanisms before the House, but the Crown Estate is a large commercial property company that is run in a pretty conservative way. It is not a bad proxy for how the country and the economy are doing.”

With the proposed devolution of the management and revenues of the Crown Estate in Scotland the net profits remitted to the Treasury will shrink slighty from any given base and thus the 15% will reduce very slightly (Scotland only contributes around 3% of the net revenue).

The UK Parliament and the Treasury are free at any time to alter the formula and the Smith Commission recognised that it might be necessary. Indeed, a statutory review is due in April 2016. The problem they have at the moment is in fact that the Sovereign grant has grown faster than expected due to the London property market and George Osborne and the Royal Trustees are busy negotiating a reduction in the Grant.

The Palace official who briefed the media would, in a more distant age, probably have been taken out and shot. Quite why the Palace wants to pick an entirely unfounded and counter-productive attack on the Scottish Government is not clear.

Meanwhile, confusion reigns at precisely the moment when, with the Scotland Bill being debate in Parliament, we need calm negotiation.


Buckingham Palace has released a statement as follows.

“Sir Alan Reid Keeper of the Privy Purse said today: “Yesterday’s media briefing on the Sovereign Grant report 2014-15 was intended to highlight some of the issues that may arise when the first review of the Sovereign Grant begins in April next year. The comments and observations were about a principle and never intended to be a criticism of Scotland or of the First Minister or to suggest that the First Minister had cast doubt on the continued funding of the Monarchy.

The principle is about what happens if profits from certain Crown Estate assets, such as those in Scotland, are not paid to the Treasury and the impact that may have on the calculation of the Sovereign Grant in future years. This question will form part of next year’s review.

As we made clear at the briefing, Scotland contributes in many ways to the Treasury’s consolidated fund – out of which the Sovereign Grant is paid. We said explicitly that to imply Scotland would not pay for the Monarchy was simply wrong and we accept unreservedly the assurances of the Scottish Government that the Sovereign Grant will not be cut as a result of devolution of the Crown Estate.”

The provisions in the Scotland Bill for the devolution of the management of the Crown Estate in Scotland are complex and unclear (see previous blog for background).

Last week, the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee (RACCE) heard evidence from representatives of the Crown Estate Commissioners (CEC) and some significant points came up. (1) Here are my latest thoughts on why Clause 31 of the Scotland Bill fails to implement the Smith Agreement on this topic.

In 1999, Crown property rights were devolved under the Scotland Act 1998. However, the management and revenues were reserved and remained under the control of the CEC. The Smith Agreement is to devolve the management and the revenues. To achieve this is straightforward. The two reservations (of management and of revenues) in Schedule 5 of the 1998 Act need to be removed.

Once these removals take effect, the responsibility for the management and revenues of the Scottish Crown property, rights and interests that currently make up the Crown Estate in Scotland would fall by default to the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government. While Scottish Ministers would need to put in place the necessary administrative arrangements to deal with these new responsibilities, there is no need for any further legislation. Once this has happened, the Scottish Parliament can begin the process of decentralisation (to which all political parties are committed) and some of which will require legislation to put into effect.

In contrast with that approach, the Scotland Bill provides for a “transfer scheme” whereby functions of the CEC may be transferred to a transferee in Scotland and continue to be governed by a modified Crown Estate Act 1961, until such time as the Scottish Parliament determines otherwise. One of those giving evidence to RACCE was Rob Booth, the Head of Legal at the CEC. He said, in response to a question that,

The position after the transfer date will be that the Crown Estate Act 1961 will be applied as a fallback, to fill a potential vacuum. At the transfer date, if no Scottish legislation has been brought forward to set up the structure to take on the new role, a modified version of the 1961 act will be applied as an interim measure until Scotland has had an opportunity to pass that legislation. 

In my reading of the Scotland Bill, it is not anticipated that there will be an on-going application of those 1961 act principles to management in Scotland. After the transfer date, as things stand, the 1961 act will apply only to the Crown estate in the rest of the UK, so Scotland will have freedom as far that particular aspect is concerned.” (2)

In other words, the Scotland Bill would remove the Schedule 5 reservation on management (we will deal with revenues shortly) but rather than keeping things straightforward as outlined above, Clause 31 would put in place a Treasury transfer scheme which binds nominated transferees into a legal framework governed by the Crown Estate Act and which needs to be undone by the Scottish Parliament if and when it wishes to do so in relation to the various Crown property rights and interests involved.

It remains unclear why this added complexity is necessary. Four other aspects remain unclear.

The first is the question of the revenues. It is now clear that the Scotland Bill will not devolve the revenues. Instead, it amends the Civil List Act to the effect that all revenues will be paid to the Scottish Consolidated Fund. The reservation in Schedule 5 remains in place, however, and so it will be incompetent for the Scottish Parliament to make any change to this arrangement. This, in effect, makes decentralisation very problematic. The promise that the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon made in Orkney two weeks ago, that “coastal and island councils will benefit from 100 per cent of the net revenue generated in their area from activities within 12 miles of the shore” is made rather difficult if all of the revenue has, by law, to flow to the Scottish Consolidated Fund. (3)

The second matter relates to the idea that, after devolution, the CEC will continue to be able to acquire land in Scotland. This is legally incompetent. The CEC does not acquire land or property interest in its own behalf but does so on behalf of the Crown. Constitutionally and legally, the Crown is a distinct entity in Scotland from the rest of the UK. Were the CEC to acquire, say a shopping centre in Scotland in 5 years time, it would be owned by the Crown in Scots law but acquired from revenue derived from the English Crown. Constitutional experts will be better placed to address this question than I but I do not think this is constitutionally possible.

Thirdly, the Scotland Bill at Clause 31(10) stipulates that any management of Crown property in Scotland shall maintain the property, rights and interests as “an estate in land”. Rob Booth described this as “a fundamental founding principle of the Crown Estate”. (4) But after devolution there will be no Crown Estate in Scotland (the term will only apply outside Scotland). Crown property rights have been devolved since 1999 and this constraint represents a reversal of the current competence of the Scottish Parliament for no good reason.

Finally, the Fort Kinnaird retail park in the east of Edinburgh will not be included in the devolved settlement. Rob Booth explained this in the following terms.

As a lawyer reading the Smith proposals, I can see that Smith talked about Crown Estate economic assets in Scotland being devolved to Scottish ministers. There is a statutory definition in section 1(1) of the Crown Estate Act 1961 of what the Crown estate is, which is those assets that are managed by the Crown Estate Commissioners. Fort Kinnaird undoubtedly is an economic asset in Scotland, but we do not manage it. The underlying asset is not owned by the Crown; therefore, to my mind as a lawyer, it does not fit the definition of a Crown Estate economic asset in Scotland as described by the Smith report.” (5)

Fort Kinnaird is owned by a partnership – The Gibraltar Limited Partnership. In Scots law a partnership is a legal entity and may own property in its own right. The Gibraltar Partnership, however, is governed by English law, specifically the Limited Partnership Act of 1907. Such partnerships are not legal entities and it is the partners that are the legal owners of the property. There are two partners in the Partnership – the CEC on behalf of the Crown and the Hercules Unit Trust. Since Fort Kinnaird is in Scotland, the interest that the CEC has is an interest owned by the Scottish Crown. (6)

Rob Booth’s explanation is unconvincing, disingenuous and wrong. The underlying asset (the interest) is owned by the Crown, the CEC manages that interest, and it does therefore form part of the Crown Estate.

To conclude, the Scotland Bill does not implement the Smith Agreement. Instead it creates a complex and incoherent muddle where there should, instead, be clarity and simplicity. The Scotland Bill is about devolving further powers to the Scottish Parliament. That is achieved by removing the two key reservations. That’s all, in essence, that it needs to do (although there are minor consequential amendments) and it doesn’t even achieve that. In the Committee stage of the Bill on 29 June 2015, MPs should ensure that it does.


(1) Official Report here
(2) Official Report Cols 12-13
(3) See Shetland Times, 21 June 2015
(4) Official Report Col 14
(5) Official Report Col 6
(6) See here for Companies House filing history on the Partnership