George IIIAs a socialist, I believe in the power of collective action, both through the state and through individuals and communities acting in concert. I believe society would benefit from more public assets being acquired and then used intelligently for the public good, to redistribute wealth and support sustainability and innovation. These may not be fashionable ideas at Westminster, but the Common Weal project from the Jimmy Reid Foundation seems to have gained a fair amount of traction in Scotland.

So here’s a modest proposal for a new institution in that vein. Perhaps we could call it The People’s Land.

Ministers could begin buying up land of various sorts across the country and bringing it together to be managed better, operated on a commercial basis but with an eye on the long term rather than a fast buck for shareholders, maintaining the value and environmental integrity of the assets. We could start with neglected rural estates that could be run for the benefit of the local community, the environment and the taxpayer rather than absentee landlords. This wouldn’t be a substitute for land reform and direct community ownership – but it could be a good fit for other communities alongside the pioneering work being done in places like Eigg and Knoydart.

And forestry – it’d be great to have a publicly owned forestry management body that wasn’t as obsessed with sitka spruces as the Forestry Commission is (although they’re getting better). The Forestry Commission also costs taxpayers £60m a year (2012 accounts, pdf, p38), even though they’re managing very valuable assets for us. This new body would be instructed to do the opposite, to contribute profits to public funds while also meeting stringent standards of community and environmental stewardship, like an ultra-modern cross between a social enterprise and a publicly-owned company – one that’s a help rather than hindrance. The kind of innovation the smart parts of the left and right should be able to support.

The land in question wouldn’t all need to be at the picturesque end of rural Scotland either. This People’s Land approach could just as successfully be used with ex-mining land, and ways could be found to turn around places that suffered when the mines closed. We need to start supporting local businesses and communities in these areas again. After all, neither the market nor the state has done much for the people who bore the brunt of Thatcherite deindustrialisation.

Maybe we could even start taking on land in our cities. Residential urban land is incredibly valuable, so it’ll cost a bit to get started, but right now those benefits accrue year after year to private owners. One day we’ll hopefully have a fair land value tax, but as an interim measure perhaps an initial investment in The People’s Land could even include money to buy a little of Scotland’s prime retail real estate. This may sound impossibly radical and idealistic, but with the will, it could be done.

The substantial sums this kind of urban asset would then bring in, year after year, could then be used to help protect public services (or keep taxes down, depending on your political perspective – there’s something even for Tories in this radical socialism lark). Just like the rural properties I’m proposing, this urban land could then also be managed with the local community too, with a ruthless focus on the social, environmental and economic opportunities.  It should operate at arm’s length to avoid becoming a puppet of successive governments, but should be scrutinised by and accountable to elected representatives.

But let’s be even more ambitious. Scotland has the best natural assets in Europe for offshore renewables, and it could be in all our environmental and economic interests to have those developments managed sensibly, in a way that coordinates activity and ensures a substantial return to the taxpayer (and the utility bill payer) by charging developers for use of the seabed. In fact, it’s hard to see how else we’ll get the booming indigenous marine renewables sector everyone says they support.

And what’s the alternative for developing our marine environment responsibly? Right now, twenty-five of Scotland’s thirty-two local authorities have a bit of coastline to manage. Just look at the map – even tiny Clackmannanshire has a bit of the Forth coast. Clearly they should still have a role to play locally, but how much better to have one body working with them, a hub of expertise, a central marine development body that’s kept separate from the regulating and planning functions of government to avoid conflicts of interest. Why should those twenty-five authorities all have to have every kind of expert required to protect the public interest and secure the benefits of offshore renewables? That’s a recipe for duplication and waste, and vastly different regimes for developers to have to get their heads round. This marine body could be a separate institution, but the values we’d want from it (community involvement, true sustainability, long-term planning, economic efficiency & commercial acumen) are the same we’d be expecting from The People’s Land. So why not roll it all up together?

The good news is we don’t have to set up The People’s Land. It already exists, and we already own it. It’s just got an unfortunate name: The Crown Estate. It does most of those things already. Through it, we own 37,000ha of rural estates from Glenlivet to Whitehill in Midlothian, 5,000ha of forestry, around half the foreshore, the seabed out to 12 nautical miles, and even some of George Street and Fort Kinnaird retail park in Edinburgh.

Each year, all its profits go to the UK exchequer. Last year, the Crown Estate put £250 million into the public coffers this way. Over the past ten years the total profit to us, the taxpayers, was £2.1 billion: a tidy wee sum for Ministers to spend on our behalf.

Disastrously for its reputation, though, it has a name which makes it sound like the Royals run it. They used to, but that ended in 1760 when George III (pictured above) handed his assets over to the state in perpetuity in exchange for being given Civil List payments. For 252 years the Royal involvement was purely nominal, until some utter idiot called George Osborne decided that annual payments from Government to our bloated monarchy (i.e. the Sovereign Grant, the successor to the Civil list etc) would be set at 15% of the Crown Estate’s profits.

Plenty of left radicals oppose the Crown Estate altogether, but it seems like a misunderstanding to do so. Even prior to Osborne’s changes, I wouldn’t say it’s perfect. In particular, there’s definitely room for more local democratic involvement in their activities, and like any other public body, they haven’t always made the right decisions. The stuff about maintaining the value and environmental integrity of the assets they manage isn’t formalised in law, and it should be, although in practice that’s already part of the thinking.

But overall, it’s a first-class seed for one of the most radical and progressive institutions we could ever devise. An independent Scotland shouldn’t scrap the Crown Estate: instead we should retain our share, boost community involvement (especially around ports and harbours), and break the link with the monarchy forever. Oh, and rename it to avoid confusion.

Pic from here.

Disclosure: when I worked for a private PR consultancy the Crown Estate were one of their (and my) clients.