Treasury should devolve its ‘piggy bank’

Madoc Batcup unpicks the role of the Crown Estate which, he says, should be made accountable to the Welsh Government

In his 2010 June budget George Osborne announced that the Crown Estate would be used to fund the expenditure of the royal household. Now the Treasury is to establish a Coastal Communities Fund, which will be funded by half the amount that the Crown Estate receives from its marine activities. These funds will be separated by country, so that Wales will receive half the amount generated by the Crown Estate’s marine activities in Wales. According to the Treasury this would currently be worth £1.15 million.

This is a rather small amount, but it is set to grow rapidly as the next phase of off-shore windfarms is constructed. However, it is difficult to discern any principles underlying the announcement.  It is not clear whether coastal communities which are not close to activities such as windfarms or dredging are equally eligible to benefit as those which are. Why should the amount be half of the Crown Estate revenues? And why the Crown Estate should act as a quasi lottery fund in making decisions as to who should receive the money? What is at least acknowledged is that the income relating to Welsh resources should be for the benefit of people in Wales.

Yet the announcement serves only to highlight the anomalous nature of the Crown Estate which was created by statute in 1961. In fact, its legal status is comparable to a quango. The issue of accountability it shares with all quangos is exacerbated by the fact that it both owns and controls the entire coastline of the UK, including that of Wales, and the majority of its foreshore. It holds the power to licence offshore windfarms and many other activities besides.

Meanwhile, its relationship with the Welsh Government, the Environment Agency and other public bodies is far from clear. Even the extent of its land ownership is sometimes unhelpfully obscure. There is currently a dispute between the Crown Estate and Carmarthenshire County Council about the ownership of the quay wall in Carmarthen which needs repairing. Both claim the other has responsibility.

It looks as though the UK government is starting to regard the Crown Estate as a special piggy bank for difficult issues. However, what is needed is a thorough review of whether, post devolution, it ought to continue in its present form at all. If the UK government has now acknowledged that Wales, or at least communities in Wales, should be entitled to receive at least part of the income generated from publicly owned resources within Wales, it seems but a short step to argue that Wales should be entitled to all the proceeds from such resources.

The licensing and decision making powers exercised by the Crown Estate ultimately derivie from a settlement made in 1760. As such they have no place in a modern democratic society, any more than do the voting practices of the UK prior to the Great Reform Act of 1832.

The Crown Estate has eight commissioners, of whom one is appointed by the Scotland Office, but none by Wales.  It does not even have an office in Wales. Its only formal responsibility is to the Treasury, and according to its latest annual report its vision is to be the UK’s “most respected property business”.

A review of the funding arrangements for Wales has recently been announced by the UK government, but its terms of reference have yet to be completely clarified. This raises the interesting possibility of including the status of the Crown Estate among the matters to be looked at.  At a time when the Scottish Government is pushing hard to have control of the Crown Estate in Scotland it would be appropriate and timely for the same issue be addressed in Wales.

The Holtham Report did review the potential for taxing Wales’s natural resources, but the transfer of ownership was outside its remit. It is now time to review whether there is any justification for the Crown Estate to retain its powers and prerogatives in Wales, or whether it would be more appropriate to transfer these, together with the benefit of the exploitation of Wales’s natural resources, to the Welsh Government.

The exploitation of the natural resources of Wales should not be decided on by a body that is in no way accountable to the Welsh people, and whose vision is confined to being a respected property company. It is simply not appropriate that Wales should receive a proportion of the benefit of the exploitation of those resources essentially as an act of charity by an absentee landlord.  Wales has a long history of its natural resources being exploited by others. We should now seize this opportunity to ensure that those who make decisions in respect of its resources are accountable to the people of Wales.

Madoc Batcup is an independent finacial consultant.

Also within Politics and Policy