The Sovereign Grant Bill is currently passing through the Westminster Parliament. The main provision of this Bill is to replace the Civil List by a sovereign grant, which will be based, essentially, on 15% of the profits of the crown estates. This Bill has profound implications for Scotland: anyone who doubts this should consider the final paragraph of an article by Clive Aslett in the Daily Telegraph of 8th July:
“A consequence of the Sovereign Grant Bill – can it really have been unforeseen? – is that it will make it more difficult for a breakaway Scotland to get its hands on the estate’s Scottish assets. To some Tories, that could be the best thing about this otherwise arcane settlement.”
In this article, we will start by clearing up some common misunderstandings about the nature and status of the crown estate. We will then show how the proposals in the Sovereign Grant Bill are bad for the UK – and even worse for Scotland. And we also show what Scotland can, and should, do about this situation.
The crown estate represents a varied mix of property – with a book value currently estimated at £6.6 billion, a figure which almost certainly underestimates the true value. It includes large holdings of rural and urban land, as well as extensive marine assets. These marine assets include over half of the foreshore of the UK, all of the seabed out to the 12 nautical mile limit, and mineral rights, (excluding hydrocarbons), over the continental shelf. These marine assets are particularly important in the Scottish context. With the growth in renewable energy, there is likely to be a very large income derived from marine sites for generating and transmitting renewable energy.
It is a commonly held myth that the crown estate in some sense represents personal property of the sovereign. It does not. The crown estates are held by the sovereign “in right of the crown”, and are quite distinct from any property, like the Sandringham estates, owned personally by the Queen. Property owned “in right of the crown” is effectively public property – that is, owned by the people. And in fact, as the 1998 Scotland Act makes clear, the ownership of crown estates in Scotland is a devolved matter: that is, in essence, the ownership of the crown estates in Scotland rests with the people of Scotland.
But although ownership of crown properties in Scotland is devolved, a bizarre anomaly in the 1998 Scotland Act means that management of the crown estates, which is carried out by the crown estate commissioners, is a reserved function. Moreover, the profit which the estates make each year is paid to the Treasury.
In 1760, George III revoked his claim to a number of hereditary revenues, including the income from the crown estates in England, in return for an annual civil list payment from the Treasury. Interestingly, it was not until 1830 that William IV revoked the income from the crown estates in Scotland.
In a charmingly British convention, each successive monarch, on their accession, revokes his or her claim to any income from the crown estates. Note, however, that even before George III’s revoked the income from the crown estates, this income had never been used primarily for the personal and household expenses of the sovereign. Historically, when the sovereign effectively ran the executive arm of government, the income from the crown estate, together with other state revenues, was used by the sovereign to pay for the general expenses of government, (like the armed forces prior to 1688), as well as covering the expenses of the royal household. And this principle, that crown estate revenues should be used for the general expenses of government, was enshrined in an important Act at the time of Queen Anne.
A corollary of this general principle is that no new sovereign could refuse to revoke any claim to the income of the crown estates. As one early commentator put it, a sovereign could no more do this than restore the Star Chamber.
Against this background, the Sovereign Grant Bill introduces fundamental changes. What is proposed is that there should be a sovereign grant, set basically as the larger of 15% of the profit of the crown estate, or the preceding year’s grant. There will also be a reserve fund, into which any excess of the sovereign grant over audited royal expenses should be paid. If the reserve rises above 50% of royal expenditure, then the grant can be reduced. The 15% share of crown estate profits will be reviewed every seven years.
Viewed purely as a piece of UK legislation, there is much that is wrong with the Sovereign Grant Bill. For example:
• It is an incentive for royal profligacy. Within each seven year period between reviews, the only way that the sovereign grant can be reduced is if the reserve has built up. This is a strong incentive for royal expenses to be maximised, to prevent the growth of the reserve.
• It gives the quite wrong impression that the crown estates are in some sense the property of the crown, and that it is right for royal expenditure to be directly linked to crown estate revenues. Witness the title of the Daily Telegraph article already referred to – “Things are looking up on the estate, Ma’am”.
• It will distort the incentives of the crown estate commissioners. Anxious to please royalty, they will be tempted to deliver at least one year with a big profit early in each seven year review period, which would then secure royal finances for the remainder of that seven year period.
• In the long run, as crown estate profits grow through revenue from renewable energy, the proposals will be extremely generous to the royal finances. This runs quite counter to the initial spin put on the sovereign grant proposals by government spokesmen, that the changes would impose increased financial discipline on royal expenditure.
Looking at the proposals from a Scottish perspective, the implications are even worse.
What the proposals do is to put in place a pre-emptive claim on the income arising from the Scottish crown estate. As is clear from the quotation given in the introduction, unionist negotiators will argue either that the crown should continue to receive income from public lands in Scotland as Scotland moves towards independence: or that an independent Scotland should compensate the crown for the loss of this income.
But these arguments are nonsensical: it is our land, and we were never consulted about the hypothecation of the income from these lands to the crown in the Sovereign Grant Bill: so there is absolutely no reason why the provisions of the Bill should encumber an independent Scotland.
In fact, the attempt by the Bill to put such an encumbrance on the Scottish crown estates, ownership of which is devolved, clearly breaches the spirit of the Sewel convention, under which Westminster should not legislate on devolved matters without the approval of the Scottish Parliament. What should be done is that the Scottish Parliament should now pass a motion, expressing its disapproval of the Sovereign Grant Bill. This might, or might not, cause Westminster to amend the Bill. But that would not matter: it would clearly remove Scotland from any encumbrance on the income of the Scottish crown estates in future independence negotiations.