The Queen owns most of the U.K. seabed. That's slowing conservation work.

The royal family is called on to help recover Britain's biodiversity, starting with royal properties.

By Matthew Ponsford
Published 13 Jun 2022, 11:23 BST
brighton-beach
Waves crash ashore in southern England. Britain's coastal waters once supported lush seagrass meadows and kelp forests.
Photograph by Glyn Kirk, AFP, Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth is well known as one of the largest landowners in the world. Less well known is that her holdings include most of the seabed encircling the United Kingdom, out to 12 nautical miles from shore.

Photograph by Glyn Kirk, AFP, Getty Images

That eye-popping detail of monarchal history is being seen in a new light as Britain’s declining biodiversity gains attention and the royal family has been urged to take on greater leadership in restoring nature—starting with the properties they control.

Yet lately efforts to restore coastal waters have encountered obstacles unique to this monarchy—ones that have chased a kelp farmer to a more welcoming reception in southeast Asia, for example, and that threaten to derail the largest effort to replant seagrass ever undertaken in Britain.

The U.K. is in no position to lose such opportunities, advocates say. Nearly half of the country’s wildlife and plant species have been lost since the Industrial Revolution, according to a biodiversity monitoring initiative launched last year by London’s Natural History Museum. Britain now ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the world and as the worst among G-7 nations. 

Scientists describe the loss of seagrass meadows and kelp forests that ring the coastline in a single word: catastrophic. Nearly 90 percent of seagrass has vanished, much of it in the last 30 years to coastal development, overfishing, pollution, and damage by boats and anchors. Some scientists predict that most of the UK’s 26,000 square miles of kelp forests are likely to be lost by 2100.

When seagrass and kelp thrive, they protect against coastal erosion, serve as nurseries to coastal marine life, and absorb copious amounts of carbon. But gaining permission to restore those ecosystems requires a lease, with fees paid to the Crown Estate—the commercial real estate company that manages properties owned by the monarch. 

The scientists and supporters involved in restoration efforts say the idea that people should have to pay for the chance to fix dying ecosystems for the good of the nation is wrongheaded. It is not the case elsewhere. In Florida, for instance, the state government owns coastal waters, makes patches available for restoration without charge, and in some cases requires developers to fund restoration projects, says Susan Bell, a University of South Florida marine ecologist.

Richard Unsworth, a marine ecology professor at Swansea University in Wales, whose Project Seagrass in one of the U.K.’s most prominent marine restoration efforts, is incredulous that the Crown Estate “would charge us to plant seagrass on their seabed.”

Together with the World Wildlife Fund and Sky Ocean Rescue, Unsworth developed plans to replant 7,500 acres of seagrass in hundreds of sites around the U.K. shoreline. The lease for a five-acre (two-hectare) test site off the coast of Wales, came with a £2,500 fee, and Unsworth says he fears the fees for the rest of the campaign could render it unaffordable.

Much of the funding for the campaign is to be raised locally from donations of £10 or £5.

“We get kids emailing us trying to get all their friends to donate for their birthday parties, rather than giving each other presents, you know? And we’re passing that money on to the queen,” Unsworth says. “It’s just messed up, let’s face it. There’s no moment I’ve thought, actually, they’re trying to help us.”

Meanwhile, a Hampshire-based firm that planned a network of 58 small kelp farms around the country, hoping to grow biomaterials for plastics, cosmetics, and cattle feed while also boosting marine biodiversity and storing carbon waited through a year of delays trying to secure leases from the Crown Estate and licenses from the government. When his investors ran low on patience, says Howard Gunstock, co-founder of Carbon Kapture, he relocated kelp production to southeast Asia. 

“If I can't execute, my timing window goes,” says Gunstock. “And then 18 months later, those contacts are dead to me.”

Queen and seabed go way back

The queen’s vast holdings, including the seabed, date to the Norman Conquest of 1066, when William the Conqueror claimed all England for the crown. Today, the queen remains, by law, the ultimate legal owner of all land, although this gives her no power over most of it. She has complete control only over her privately owned estates, including Balmoral and Sandringham.

But as monarch she continues to own and derive revenue from the seabed and half the foreshore—the land between the high- and low-tide lines—as part of an eclectic set of crown assets that also include all silver and gold deposits and swathes of valuable central London real estate.

This£14.4-billion portfolio is managed on behalf of the queen by the Crown Estate, as part of an arrangement that began in 1760 with a deal between Parliament and King George III. At the outset of the king's reign, years before he confronted American revolutionaries, he faced a financial crisis that led him to hand over control of crown properties in exchange for a set annual fee from income of those properties.

Today, this “unique—peculiarly British—organisation,” as the U.K. Parliament has called the Crown Estate, combines a royal endowment with a public investment fund. Earnings go to the public purse, with a quarter of them paid back to the royals. In the last decade, the Crown Estate has made £3 billion for the royal family and Treasury.

The majority of these earnings come from urban property, including most of London’s famed Regent Street. The seabed has only recently become a big earner for the Crown Estate, with marine revenues of £121 million in 2021, from sources including offshore wind leases, pipelines, and cables.

Parliament has chided the Crown Estate for its emphasis on revenue generation, which “appeared to prevent the [Crown Estate’s managers] taking full account of potential wider public interests.” The announcement of an expected £8.8 billion revenue windfall over the next decade from the sale of leases for offshore wind farms provoked a backlash in Parliament. It prompted calls from lawmakers that the archaic institution be brought up to date—or be stripped of its management duties.

"The seabed is more than a cash cow for the Crown Estate and the Treasury,” says Luke Pollard, a member of Parliament from  Plymouth. “In the middle of a climate and ecological crisis we need the Crown Estate to put nature and carbon on the same level as receipts for offshore activity."

Time for more reform?

Some say the Crown Estate’s antiquity may be the heart of the problem. Duncan McCann, an economics expert, says no one would have intentionally designed such a financial institution, which is neither the private property of the monarch nor a public body owned by the government. Instead, he says, the Crown Estate is a hybrid that “emerged over hundreds of years through incremental reform.”

Now some critics say more reform is needed. The Zoological Society of London and the Marine Conservation Society have recommended licensing reforms that would aid marine habitat restoration and recognise its value. A study by the New Economics Foundation concluded that restoring kelp forest in just one part of West Sussex, along England’s south coast, would be worth more than £3 million per year to the local community.

The Seven Sisters white cliffs tower over the sea at Cuckmere Haven in East Sussex.
Photograph by Jeff Overs, BBC News & Current Affairs, Getty Images

In 2017, the Scottish Parliament voted to transfer management of Crown Estate assets in Scotland to a new successor organisation, Crown Estate Scotland (CES), to gain greater autonomy from Westminster. A similar effort has been proposed in Wales.

Leaders of the liberal Green party suggested replacing the Crown Estate with a “green sovereign wealth fund” as a possible solution. Molly Scott Cato, a Green Party politician and an economist, says many in the U.K. are surprised to learn that environmental initiatives could be hamstrung by such “bizarre, medieval hangovers.”

“If you polled 1,000 people, I don’t think any of them would say, ‘Yep, that’s fine! Let the Queen own that. She can stop you planting seagrass.’” Cato says.“The overwhelming majority would say that’s insane.”

'I hope we are getting things right' 

In fact, neither the queen nor members of her family play any role at all in managing the Crown Estate. That is left to an eight-member estate commission. Huub den Rooijen, the Crown Estate’s marine managing director, says the company seeks to “strike the right balance” between environmental and social benefits, and commercial revenues.

In this framework, “mature” industries with proven revenue streams often take precedence, den Rooijen says. But he agrees that innovative restoration projects should not be charged anything beyond basic administrative fees.

“We don't really know what technologies are going to be the right ones going forward,” he says. “So if we have a charity, if we have a university, who are saying, 'Well, we think we have some project here that can work that could be scaled up' then of course, they shouldn't be paying for that." 

To engage with such “innovative new ventures,” den Rooijen says, the company has begun a process of reexamining its relationship with the natural environment. “I hope we are getting things right,” he says. “And if feedback is that we don't, then we'd love to hear that feedback.”

One hopeful sign is unfolding on England’s south coast, where the Adur & Worthing Councils in Sussex are negotiating the country’s first lease for “natural capital” with the Crown Estate. The plan is to create a kelp forest with the potential to capture the equivalent of the carbon emissions of more than 7,000 homes, while at the same time providing habitat for seahorses, lobsters, cuttlefish, and bass.

The greening of the queen

In recent years, the Queen has cultivated a reputation as an environmentally conscious head of state. In personal gestures, she has rejected fur and installed beehives in Buckingham Palace, while using her public platform to call politicians to action at last autumn's climate conference in Glasgow. A tree-planting scheme marked the 70th year of her reign. 

Royal heirs have likewise shown ambitions for a greener planet, with Prince Charles advocating for the environment since the 1970s and Prince William establishing the new Earthshot Prize for solutions to climate change and other environmental issues.

The queen’s commitment to protecting the environment is in part what led 120 scientists and prominent leaders to urge her and her family to “lead the way in healing our land” and restore forests, rivers, swamps and other ecosystems. “You have a unique and historic opportunity to radically address the degraded state of nature on these lands,” the group wrote in a letter last year to the royals.

Seagrass meadows seemed to be a prime example. Replanting them is challenging; when Unsworth and his partner scientists began working in 2019, there had been only a few minor trials in the U.K. Yet the world’s largest seagrass restoration project, in the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, had shown that planting on a large scale was one key to success.

In early March, 2020, Unsworth and his volunteers zig-zagged back and forth in a small inflatable boat over the five-acre site they had leased from the Crown Estate, off Dale, a village in southwestern Wales. They laid out more than 10 miles of rope tied with thousands of miniature burlap pouches, which together contained a million seeds that had been hand collected one by one by divers around the British coast. The tiny pouches were designed to prevent the seeds from being washed away or eaten by crabs.

When divers returned late last year, a new meadow had begun to rise. It was patchy in places but measuring more than two feet from the sandy seabed, a healthy meadow that the local community hopes will soon shelter cod, plaice, and pollock, as well as cuttlefish, rays, and sea snails.

Project Seagrass is now on the lookout for the areas of seabed where it won’t have to deal with the Crown Estate, Unsworth says. About 20 local communities contacted him after Dale’s pilot project made national news. One plan now under development is a privately owned site in the Solent, the strait between England’s south coast and the Isle of Wight. Other sites belong to scattered landholders, including members of Britain’s aristocracy.

Off the southwestern city of Plymouth, seagrass seeds were sown in March on a 2.5-acre (one hectare) patch of seabed owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, the royal estate that belongs to Prince Charles. It is not managed by the Crown Estate. The site was made available free of charge.

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