The uncorrected transcript of evidence – published today – from the Crown Estate presented to the Westminster parliament’s Scottish Affairs Committee of MPs last week has revealed a bruising question-and-answer session over the Estate’s policy, procedures, lack of transparency and explicit commercial focus.
Crown Estate witness included newly-appointed Chief Executive Alison Nimmo, Gareth Baird, Scottish Commissioner, Ronnie Quinn, Energy and Infrastructure Lead for Scotland, and Alan Laidlaw, Scotland Rural and Coastal Portfolio Manager,
MP Ian Davidson, Chairman of the Scottish Affairs committee, said: “Can I start off just by asking whether or not you believe that it is fair to say that since 2012, our report, there has been very little real change of substance in the operations of the Crown Estate in Scotland, and while there has been a certain amount of PR improvement and enhancement, there has been very little major change in the way that you operate?”
Replying, Gareth Baird said: “We are pleased to be able to report today on the actions we have taken in response to your recommendations. While a number of these, such as the proposed devolution of the Crown Estate, are clearly a matter for Government and for you as legislators, we have made significant progress against those recommendations that do follow within our remit. “We have concluded transfers for historic sites and ancient rights, and increased our accountability, with evidence to three parliamentary Committees in the last year.
“We have gone further, though. Our local management agreements, launched here in Inverness, now offer access for local communities to oversee coastal assets within their areas. Our Act dictates that we remain a commercial organisation. “We are not a social enterprise or an economic development agency. This is often a source of contention, but in pursuing our business interests we remain a key player and investor in unlocking sustainable economic growth right across Scotland.
“The expertise we have in our Scotland team has enabled us to deliver a number of firsts for Scotland, recently including a new-generation offshore wind project with Samsung and a floating wind opportunity with Statoil, to the Goldeneye agreement with Shell on carbon capture and storage.”
In her reply to a question from MP Mike Crockart about the Crown Estate’s longer-term strategic vision, Alison Nimmo said: “Being clear about what we do and how we do it, so I talked a bit more about collaboration and partnership, working with other agencies here in Scotland. “We cannot do everything everywhere. We are a relatively small organisation. I think we need to be a bit more agile about what we do, as Gareth was alluding to.
“There is quite a lot of frustration out there that we are not an economic development agency and we do not give out grants and so on, and that we are a commercial organisation. Nobody likes the landlord. It is really looking at how we can work more effectively with others that do have that remit to deliver.”
Commenting in terms of the seabed more generally, Nimmo said that “we have a clear view that that is a real strategic resource and that it would not be in the interests of Scotland to have that fragmented.
“In terms of our management of the seabed, it is really important that there is a coherent approach to energy policy across the UK and obviously in Scotland and that there is a coherent approach to offshore energy as well. Having a strategic view to how the seabed is managed we feel is a strong part of that. Our policy position on seabed is presumption against sales.”
MP Mike Crockhart asked another question – about ‘regular, structured, stakeholder engagement’ by the Crown Estate. Gareth Baird replied; “Over the last year, I think Alison, Ronnie and I met First Minister Alex Salmond.
“We have met just about all the Cabinet Secretaries except Richard Lochhead, whom we meet on a regular basis anyway. I think we met Fergus Ewing, running now about five or six times. We have met Johann Lamont. We have met Ruth Davidson. We see Willie Rennie on a regular basis. We have been down to Westminster. I met Margaret Curran. I met Nicola Sturgeon, the Deputy First Minister.
Crockart said; “ Once again, marvellous, but what are you doing that is regular and extensive stakeholder management? You have talked about individual meetings focusing on high-level political figures. Do you do public meetings? If part of what you are doing is regularly having a structured programme with community partners, how do you do that? What do you do? Do you have public meetings to meet with those? What do you have as a programme?”
Ronnie Quinn, Crown Estate; “We were running public engagement exercises in Pentland Firth and Orkney waters, so we had meetings in Caithness, for example, where it was a public meeting organised and sponsored by ourselves. We had people there. A wave and tidal team was there, meeting with members of the public, along with developers and with local people. That happens every year and is very successful, and a lot of people attend these things.”