Letter from Westminster

The lunchtime reception to launch the Annual Report of the Crown Estate Commissioners is usually one of the grander invitations to land on my desk each year. The stiff card­board invite with its heavily embos­sed coat of arms and copperplate print requesting the pleasure of your company to share wine and canapés in the House of Lords tells you all you really need to know about the Crown Estate. It is in truth some years since I attended and I was unable to go along this year either.

I was sorry that I was not present when I saw the reports of the Commission’s accounts in the press. For the first time in some years the surplus taken in by the Commission has shown a decrease. I think it will be worth finding out if, in these difficult financial times, the efforts of their hired guns in the management company that enforces their writ in the marine estate is really value for money. Likewise, is the army of “communications officers” that has grown over the years still a justi­fiable expense? If cuts are necessary in public services and bodies then let no-one be exempt from the pain!

The revelation of this year’s press reports, however, is that the Crown Estate has finally accepted what many of us have been saying for years and that the rules governing their business need to be overhauled. I have no doubt that the commis­sioners harbour a notion that this is a bit of financial adjustment that might be done over a glass of sherry in one of the better gentlemen’s clubs in the West End, but I am afraid that I see things rather differently.

I have already been able to have a word with my colleague Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the treasury, who knowing my long-standing interest in the Crown Estate and their work agrees that if the powers and functions of the Crown Estate Commissioners is to be exam­ined then the examination must look at interests other than just those favoured and promoted by the Crown Estate itself.

This offers us an opportunity which may not come around again for another generation. The chance to prise some of the control of the seabed round our islands is a prize which is not to be missed. It is a resource which offers a growing potential in years to come. Our islands have done well out of the oil industry over the years and, as that tails off, if the development of marine renewables is to play a part in its replacement then I would like to see a similar benefit available to us from that. A reformed marine management authority could be some­thing in which we as a com­munity could feel a sense of pride and ownership as opposed to the feeling of exploitation that is the dominant feature of the current set up.

Do not think that any of this is going to be easy or quick but for the sake of future generations it is an opportunity that we must not fail to press.

Alistair Carmichael MP


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