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Devolve the Crown Estates, but do it properly

Trying to devolve powers over the head of those below is wrong, but so is hollowing out the only layer of government at the local level what would be worth devolving powers to.

Devolution – granting of powers from the central government of a sovereign state to government at a subnational level, such as a regional, local, or state level. It’s one of those things that politicians always say they are in favour of (bring decision-making closer to the people and all that) but on which they seldom really follow through. Today the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster calls for the devolution of Crown Estates Commissions responsibilities for Scotland’s coastline. So far, so good – an eminently sensible move for which many have called. It’s just beneath that broad intention that we find the two main problems.

The first of these is what we discover the Committee seems to mean by ‘devolve’. It will hand over the powers to the Scottish Parliament ‘on condition’ that the Parliament then hands those powers down further to ‘local communities’. But this isn’t devolution of power, this is in effect the removal of power. The Scottish Parliament has responsibility for local government, not Westminster. The decision to devolve power over the coast to local communities is one for the Scottish Parliament to make, not Westminster. For the record, I think that so long as the second problem below is addressed the Westminster committee is right to express its view that this should be an issue for local and not national democracy. But it isn’t for Westminster to make that decision; that is already devolved. So by promising to devolve responsibility with a condition which removes the discretion of the Scottish Parliament the net effect is to actually reduce the level of real devolution to the Parliament. Since the SNP won power there has been no love between the Scottish Affairs Committee and the Parliament (although one could quite easily exaggerate how much love the Committee had for the Parliament in the McConnell days as well). This seems quite a blatant attempts to weaken the decision-making powers of the layer of government just below the Committee’s own.

But before anyone shrieks in outrage at the disregard for the democracy just below your own democracy, the Scottish Parliament itself has no great track record. Both Labour and SNP administrations have, via different methods, also stripped away power from the layer below it. Scotland’s local authorities have faced a regime of targets, ring-fencing, deal-making and centralisation which over the years since the Parliament first sat has reduced the power and significance of local democracy.

And that’s the real problem with the devolution of Crown Estate responsibilities to the local level – what exactly is power being devolved to? Government might broadly be thought of as a combination of the administration of a state, territory or region along with the legitimate power of the body providing policy instruction to that administration. In a democracy that roughly means an administration linked to a legitimate, democratically elected body which expresses the views of electorates and can be held to account. That is not what we have at a local level in Scotland.

Instead we have giant local authorities which don’t really represent any meaningful ‘community’ and so can neither express the interests of that community nor be held accountable by it. If a community in Highlands Council area wants to express a view about its coastline it could have to drive a distance the equivalent to the length of Belgium to talk to a body which is made up overwhelmingly of people who have no interest or responsibility in their community. What it in effect would mean is not democratic devolution but purely administrative devolution. It would hand power over coastlines not to communities but to centralised professional administrators not seriously guided or mandated by ‘communities’.

This is not to decry the administrators – they do a good job in most cases. Just like the civil servants in the old Scottish Office did a good job translating London policy for Scotland pre-devolution. But what it wasn’t was devolution.

So if a community has a brilliant idea of what to do with the coastline and maritime resources in its own area it might as well whistle. It can send begging letters to its local authority but if the authority ignores its begging letters the community can do nothing except vote out its councillor (who might have been the only person in the authority supporting the initiative).

Devolution and democracy are becoming just things people say, not things they do. Unless we reverse this centralising tendency to imagine that everything below our level is either insignificant or incompetent, we will lose our place in society. Westminster, devolve the Crown Estate to the Scottish Parliament and send them a polite letter outlining your view that there is benefit to further devolution to local areas. Scottish Parliament, create a structure below your own which is worthy of the name ‘local government’, and then give it responsibility over its own natural resources. That would be devolution. The rest is just pissing over your neighbour’s wall.

Robin McAlpine