LAST July HM Treasury announced with a suitable flourish that Britain's coastal communities were to benefit from a "multi-million pound boost".
Half the revenue from the Crown Estate's marine activities was to be redirected to settlements on the coast to be spent on environmental, educational and health-related projects. For Scotland's hard-pressed remote ports and shoreside communities, it looked like just the ticket. A lottery ticket, as it turned out.
Not only was the cash to be distributed under the auspices of the Big Lottery Fund, but the total allocated to Scotland's Highlands and Islands – home to the most remote and fragile communities in Britain – was just £1.85m. Scotland as a whole is in line for less than £4m, regardless of the fact that the country's coastline (18,588kms, including the main inhabited islands) is nearly twice as long as that of England (10,077kms), which is to get £18.2m. The small size of the Scottish pot means it is vastly oversubscribed, leaving many worthwhile projects without funding.
Support for the devolution of the body which controls more than half of Scotland's coast and most of its seabed, extends far beyond card-carrying members of the SNP. In a recent report by the Scottish Affairs Committee the Crown Estate was criticised as an "absentee landlord" and little more than a tax collector. Following the logic of dividing marine revenues proportionately to income from different parts of the UK, the committee urged the government to devolve this control to local authorities. Either council or Holyrood control would be preferable to the current arrangement, in The Herald's view. With huge potential future revenues from the sale of licences for offshore wind turbines, plus wave and tidal energy around Scotland's rugged coast, the stakes are high.
Offering half of Scottish marine revenue back to Scotland as a sop to Nationalist aspirations has merely drawn attention to the unfairness of the whole arrangement. Why only half? Also, coastal communities should not have to go to an unelected body that distributes the proceeds of gambling in order to beg back the income earned from their local seabed.
There is also an issue about the definition of coastal communities. This is drawn so widely as to include Glasgow, Edinburgh and other areas located on estuaries. This is surely not what such a fund is intended for. Rather it should go to help level the economic playing field for communities disadvantaged by their remoteness and poor infrastructure. Many of these communities face a second phase of the Highland clearances, as over-stretched local authorities withdraw services, businesses close and families move away.
Regardless of whether local councils or bodies such as Highlands and Islands Enterprise, or the Scottish Parliament hold the purse strings, that is where this investment needs to go.
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