18 April 2012

S4M-02419 Crown Estate (Devolution)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-02419, in the name of David Stewart, on devolution of the Crown estate. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the publication of the Scottish Affairs Committee report, The Crown Estate in Scotland, and endorses the committee’s conclusion to recommend ending the Crown Estate Commissioner’s responsibilities for the administration and revenues of the ancient crown property, rights and interests in Scotland; supports the Scottish Affairs Committee view that marine and coastal assets in Scotland should be removed from the Crown Estate Commissioner’s responsibility and devolved down to the level of local communities, and notes the extent of marine and coastal assets throughout the Highlands and Islands and the potential to maximise the benefits to local communities through devolution.

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The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): I value all the contributions that we have heard tonight. Seldom on an issue that is widely held to be controversial have I heard such broad unanimity that something needs to be done and that responsibility needs to be delivered to this place, and from this place to communities elsewhere. That is the direction in which I wish us to travel.

The Crown Estate in Scotland is largely, if not exclusively, concerned with our coastline, which is different from the situation in the rest of the UK, where it is very much concerned with urban investments. Scotland’s seas are an important part of our natural and economic assets and are important to our economy, particularly with regard to the world of renewable energy. We need control over our sea bed to enable us to manage it properly and exploit our country’s important marine assets. The message from the debate is that the status quo is not defensible. I, too, commend the House of Commons report for its clarity of purpose and articulation of the issue.

There have been many contributions, and I will try to cover as many points as time will permit. David Stewart talked about the harbours of Highland, Shetland and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar; Tavish Scott also referred to harbours. The board at Peterhead harbour has made the same point: it builds a new breakwater and finds that its contribution rises significantly as a result of its investment. That seems as unreasonable to the board as it does to many of us.

Mary Scanlon referred to udal law; I am not sure that that touches on the issue under discussion.

I have talked to Peter Peacock, late of this place, on issues that Community Land Scotland pursues. We listen carefully to what is said there. Of course, Community Land Scotland is all about returning power to local communities and I very much look forward to working with Peter Peacock, and Community Land Scotland more generally, to continue the reformation of our land laws. We need to get assets devolved to local communities—the phrase that David Stewart used.

Jim Eadie talked about a forensic analysis of the Crown Estate and the key conclusion that it is not fit for purpose. He highlighted the lack of hard information. That is a fair point. I return to some of the points that Tavish Scott—not unreasonably—targeted at me.

One of the things that we do not know is the individual rentals that comparable fish farms and harbours pay. We know, from various sources, that they vary. The Crown Estate is a commercial operator and will get from a developer what it can in the way of resource. We need to understand exactly what the breakdown is.

I will make a wee comment about one small area in the report from the Scottish Affairs Committee. The report largely talks about devolving to the Scottish Government. However, devolving to the Scottish Government probably means administrative devolution—in other words giving ministers powers to do things—whereas I think the consensus of the debate and the intention of the Government would be that we need legislative devolution to the Scottish Parliament so that we can legislate for the appropriate frameworks for devolution on to local communities.

I will not pursue the points on Her Majesty’s interests—I would just get bogged down if I were to do that. However, I was not previously aware of the relevant act and will read it with interest.

Chic Brodie talked about land belonging to the people and referred to Lloyd George. As members would expect, I will make a personal claim. My father was Lloyd George’s last election agent, when he stood for the rectorship of the University of Edinburgh in 1942, so my father knew Lloyd George.

Tavish Scott said that there is an opportunity to make the case for further devolution. I think that the case has been made, and we are debating it tonight. What I hope is that the Secretary of State for Scotland and the UK Government will look at the content of the debate and the contributions from all the political flavours in the Parliament and tak tent of the serious intent that is clearly shared throughout the chamber.

Tavish Scott: I absolutely agree with the point that the minister just made but, given that he cannot—I understand this—set out the detail of how he would achieve devolution to a local level, will he set out even a timescale? Has the Government given any thought to how long that might take so that we can give some comfort to the coastal communities?

Stewart Stevenson: In fairness, what could be done early is making sure that communities have access to the money. We can do that relatively straightforwardly. We need to look further at getting a legislative or administrative framework that gives people access to the levers of power.

Tavish Scott asked about the rates for salmon farms. We should not automatically assume that they would be much lower, because many of the interests in exploiting our offshore resources, such as salmon farms, are foreign owned, and it is quite reasonable that we should extract a price from those foreign interests while ensuring that the revenue is made accessible to local communities.

I am running out of time. I will have to read the Official Report very carefully because Jamie McGrigor’s delineation of how capital works was not entirely clear to me. I will read it later.

The message that should go out to the secretary of state from tonight’s debate is that he should act on the evidence that has been produced by the Westminster committee’s report. We have written to the secretary of state seeking a meeting on the back of that report and, on the back of that, we will continue to press for devolution of the Crown estate.

This has been a useful debate. I have not been able to respond to everything that has been said, so if anyone feels that they have a pressing need to have more information, I will be happy to supply it if they contact me.

Meeting closed at 18:56.

Stewart Stevenson
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