Sussex isn’t Wessex. We don’t claim it and the Saxon chronicles, read attentively, back up us on that. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to glance east at present.
At Balcombe, environmental protestors are making life difficult for Cuadrilla, the firm that wants to frack for oil and gas. It’s been well described as ‘extreme energy’, a last desperate squeezing of the fossil fuel fruit that defers by a few years the real reckoning we need to undertake. And all the while adding to climate change. Cuadrilla’s response? That they have complied with all relevant laws and regulations. Which says a lotfor the competence of our law-makers. One of the exceptions is Caroline Lucas of the Green Party, who got dragged away by police yesterday. Balcombe’s actual MP is Francis Maude, a Conservative, Paymaster-General and Minister for the Cabinet Office. Now, watching him get arrested would be real fun. Watching him lose his seat would be better still.
At Newhaven, there’s a different issue. The French, who own the West Beach, have sealed off public access and the locals want it back. It’s a story with all the right ingredients. (And the online comments are a hoot.)
Start with a populace who’ve woken up to the fact that if you want to protect your community’s rights, don’t allow them to be soldoff. Private corporations have no loyalty to place. If you want to defend your heritage, keep it public. Yes, Maggie, that means the STATE has to own it because no-one else can be trusted to do the job. There shouldn’t need to be a debate about this, only about how locally the responsibility should rest. If you put the government’s assets up for sale they’ll be bought by someone else’s government. The French. The Germans. The Arabs. The Chinese. Do we own any of their assets? Do they look that daft? And it’s not only the governments. Private companies from across the world now own huge swaths of what used to be our public sector. The money raised from those sales? Oh, we had SUCH a big party up in London.
Then there’s attitudes towards the French. Always good for a WW2 joke at their expense. Nothing like resting on our laurels to remind others of events before most of their parents were born. The fact is, they DO own a lot of southern England now. And in Newhaven’s case, who exactly are these French owners? The Département of Seine Maritime, in Normandy. Imagine East Sussex County Council owning the port of Dieppe. It’s like that, only in reverse.
It’s well known that the Queen owns the foreshore here, all of it, so the froggies are clearly in the wrong. You’d think so, reading the outpourings of patriotic internet bores. But it ain’t necessarily so. The Crown Estate Commissioners are responsible for only 55% of the foreshore around the UK, about 320,000 acres. In Cornwall and Lancashire, the respective royal duchies stand in for the Crown. In Orkney and Shetland, Norse udal law suggests that the foreshore rights go with the land, not the sea, so adjoining landowners usually have the sounder claim. And elsewhere? We’ll come to that. The Crown certainly owns the seabed below mean low water mark, about 23.8 million acres. Or does it? Not all, especially where estuaries are concerned. The Port of London Authority owns part of the tidal Thames river-bed. Several river-beds in Devon belong to the Duchy of Cornwall, while the Beaulieu River in Hampshire is part of the Beaulieu Estate. And a large slice of the Severn Estuary forms something called the Beaufort Royalty, owned by the Duke of Beaufort through his property company, Swangrove Estates Ltd, to which are paid the dues for sand dredged from the bed. Never heard of the Beaufort Royalty? Unless you need to know, you probably won’t. Maybe with tidal energy now on the agenda, you’ll be hearing more.
Land with no other owner belongs by default to the Crown. That is how the royal forests originated, as well as the ownership of upland commons like Dartmoor (granted away in 1337 to the Duchy of Cornwall and still owned by it today). The Crown is assumed to own the seabed and things that come out of the sea, like whales and wreckage, and, except in Orkney and Shetland, the foreshore is treated as an ‘incident of the sea’ rather than an ‘incident of the land’. That doesn’t mean that the Crown cannot part with its rights, and along half the coastline it has done just that. In seaside resorts the beach often belongs to the council, ensuring that at least some of the money from the deckchairs and the ice creams stays local.
That still leaves a lot of the one-half in private ownership and even the other half can be exploited for profit, since the Crown Estate Commissioners have a money-raising job to do for central government. Should they? Or should all beaches be locally owned, turned over to the parish council to manage, in partnership with a wider authority if necessary? Should the seabed off our coasts be plundered for London’s benefit, or conserved for ours? These are the sort of questions we’d love to see a Wessex Witan debating in respect of our two coasts and the narrow seas we share with Wales, Brittany and Normandy. Scotland’s recent experience of sweeping land reforms has shown that it will take a fresh constitutional settlement to inspire the fresh thinking needed.