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January 26, 2011

Who should control our seabed?

Figures from the worlds of politics, academia and broadcasting, community organisations, a think tank and several members of the public have demanded that responsibility for all of Scotland’s Crown property rights (including the seabed and foreshore) should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. This is seen as a first step towards passing greater control over who benefits from these property rights onto Scotland’s communities. The Scotland Bill is currently before the Scottish Affairs Committee. Next Monday is the deadline for further submissions

A wide range of experts have told MSPs that the unelected Crown Estate Commissioners should no longer have any role in Scotland.

Figures from politics and broadcasting, academia, community organisations, a think-tank and members of the public have united to tell MSPs they need to act now to bring about a historic change. They believe that after decades of political rhetoric about tackling what was once described as the worst kind of unelected, upper-class club, there is now the chance to bring the responsibility for the management and revenues of all Scotland’s Crown property rights, particularly the seabed, under the full jurisdiction of the Scottish Parliament. They believe it is a first step to giving local communities greater economic control and therefore benefit.

MSPs on the Scotland Bill Committee are currently scrutinising legislation the Scottish Government is proposing in response to the Calman Commission’s recommendations on how to beef up Scottish devolution.

The bill includes a proposal that the Chancellor appoints a Crown Estate Commissioner (CEC) to represent the interests of Scotland. This is described by Reverend Peter D Thomson as “an utterly inadequate sop to Scottish opinion, and should be rejected out of hand” in his submission to the committee. He is one of those demanding the abolition of the Commissioners, described by some as “an undemocratic anachronism”.

This would leave the Scottish Government to take control, particularly of the seabed, at a time of multibillion-pound investment in offshore wind, wave and tidal power projects. In his submission to the committee, the leading authority on Scottish common land, Andy Wightman, says this could be achieved easily by amending The Crown Estate Act 1961 to state that it no longer applies to Scotland.

Among those who endorse Mr Wightman’s proposal in submission is the acclaimed Highland historian Professor Jim Hunter. In his submission Labour’s former UK Energy Minister Brian Wilson tells the committee: “It seems to me that this represents a genuine opportunity to tackle an issue on which a great deal of political rhetoric has been expounded, without anything changing.”

Writer, broadcaster and journalist Lesley Riddoch also backs Mr Wightman. She says if Scotland is to lose its unenviable reputation as “the best wee feudal country in the world”, control of its natural resources must be freed. “It seems to me the quickest way of starting a change process is for the Scottish Government to take over the administration of CEC rights immediately and the simplest means of achieving this is to remove the CEC from any responsibilities in Scotland,” she said.

The Scottish Islands Federation also endorses that approach and not just because of offshore renewables. “This would also provide the trust ports and harbours in Scotland with full control of the seabed, which they currently lack, thus giving them the ability to plan their own future,” they said.

The think-tank Reform Scotland believes it would allow the Scottish Parliament to use offshore renewables as “a driver of future economic prosperity”.

Community Land Scotland, which represents Scotland’s community landowners such as Assynt, Eigg and Gigha, also believes coastal areas should be solely the responsibility of Holyrood and that revenues should remain within Scotland.

The Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster has launched an Inquiry into the Scotland Bill

Call for evidence by 31 January

Scotland Bill page at UK Parliament is at