King Charles grants us a windfall from wind: now it is crucial we question ownership of the seabed

20 01 2023 | 10:52Molly Scott Cato

A monarchy ‘gift’ to the Treasury should not detract from the anachronistic convention of crown estate rights over land and sea

So the new king has reversed a thousand years of feudal convention and accepted that the value of the seabed rightfully belongs to his “subjects” rather than himself. That is the implication of the decision announced today saying King Charles will support handing over more of the crown’s share of revenues from the offshore wind boom to the Treasury, so the money can be spent in the public interest rather than for his private interest.

Given his green reputation and his coming to power in the midst of the worst cost of living crisis in living memory, the new king was perhaps embarrassed that the expansion of windfarms would bring a large £1bn a year windfall to the crown estate, 25% of which would, under the current arrangements, have gone directly to the royal household as part of the annual sovereign grant.

It does feel rather strange to be welcoming this, as though we were forelock-tugging peasants rather than 21st-century citizens.

I have long been critical of the weird anachronism that means the crown estate, the monarch’s property portfolio, owns, and has the right to lease, the whole of the seabed around our coast.

Green party policy is that the crown estate should be considered as part of the national commonwealth and the value accruing from its leasing should be channelled into a green sovereign wealth fund.

As a Green economist I am keenly focused on the risk that the sources of revenue in the green economy are rapidly becoming enclosed. Since our future energy supply will rely heavily on wind and marine resources we need to ensure that the sustainability transition is a just one; questioning the ownership of the land on which these new windfarms are built is a crucial aspect of that.

The transition is an opportunity to build a fairer economy as well as a greener one. But more immediately, how should we spend this unexpected windfall for the public good?

I should tell you not to get too excited: we are talking about several billions, so nothing like enough to solve the problems with our transport or health systems, but still a useful sum to suddenly find down the back of the national sofa.

My own choice would be to invest it in some landmark rewilding projects, on land and in our marine environments, to symbolise the transformation of our relationship with nature that is so urgently needed, and that the king himself supports. Part of the deal might be requiring those whose land was restored and regenerated to agree to forego their ownership rights and vest that land to the public in perpetuity as commonwealth.

Such rewilding is urgently necessary in a country that has lost nearly half of its biodiversity since the Industrial Revolution and is the one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.

The regeneration of just one species – marine sea kelp – could bring extraordinary benefits. Due to invasive fishing techniques and coastal development, about 90% of seagrass has disappeared over the past 30 years. Seagrass colonies provide habitats for a huge range of marine wildlife; they also act as carbon sinks. Using the windfall to fund their restoration could help to repair the damage done by the crown estate in delaying permission for such work in recent years.

In 2015 I was lucky enough to visit one of our few remaining seagrass meadows, off Studland Bay, in Dorset. I was supporting Dorset Wildlife Trust’s application for this wonderful habitat on the Isle of Purbeck to become a Marine Conservation Zone, an application that was being resisted by local developers. Thehaven it provided to two of our native species of precious seahorse was under threat.

While the money from windfarm leases might not be able to solve the climate crisis, it would make a huge difference to organisations like the Wildlife Trusts that protect our natural heritage on a shoestring.

While a few flagship rewilding projects would cheer our spirits and act as inspiration they would be only a drop in the ocean of the biodiversity crisis. More powerful by far would be to use the action taken by the king to raise more wide-reaching questions about the ownership of our land and seas.

After all, if we actually owned our natural world as a commonwealth, wouldn’t we be more willing and able to protect it?

  • Molly Scott Cato is professor of green economics at Roehampton University, and a former Green MEP


King Charles redirects £1bn windfarm profits towards ‘public good’

COVER PHOTO: A spiny seahorse in the seagrass habitat of Studland Bay, Dorset. Molly Scott Cato suggests using the windfarm windfall to fund projects such as the restoration of seagrass meadows.   Photograph: Steve Trewhella/Alamy