The Queen was dragged into a funding row last night as opposition parties warned that they could vote against a £369 million refurbishment of Buckingham Palace.
The royal household has insisted that the work is essential to avoid a catastrophic failure, but the bill is more than twice the estimates. Theresa May and Philip Hammond, the chancellor, have approved £369 million of taxpayers’ money for the ten-year refit, which must be agreed by a Commons vote before April.
Fit for the Queen
Labour and the SNP have refused to commit to supporting the funds when public sector services are facing cuts and pay freezes.
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, an avowed republican, was said to be considering the party’s position as his frontbenchers lined up to criticise the repair works.
“Ultimately it has to be weighed up against what is happening in the economy,” Andrew Gwynne, a shadow cabinet office minister, said. “Clearly on one level we have to upgrade our national heritage. But when people are struggling they will want to know how the government can find the money to refurbish Buckingham Palace. We have austerity for the many but there appears to be money for other things. The government has got to get its priorities in order.”
Another Labour frontbencher, Alex Cunningham, the pensions spokesman, said that the funds would pay for a new hospital or thousands of homes in Stockton North, his constituency.
“I have always respected the fact that we have a royal family, but I know they also have vast wealth and I don’t know what sort of contributions they will be making towards this project,” he said.
Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader and MP for Gordon, said: “I think people won’t just be raising one eyebrow at this but two.”
The renovations will be funded by increasing the sovereign grant — the royal family’s annual payment from the Treasury. Since 2012-13 this has been set at 15 per cent of the profits from the Crown Estate — land owned by the British monarch. Royal Trustees have approved an increase to 25 per cent for the next ten years, which would effectively raise the grant from about £40 million to about £70 million a year.
Essential works required at Buckingham Palace include replacing electrical wiring, water pipes and the heating system. The palace also intends to build a visitor centre.
Critics questioned why the bill had more than doubled from a £150 million estimate last year in plans that would have led to the Queen moving out during the work. Yesterday the palace said that its most cost-effective strategy would be to keep the royal household in place and redecorate wing by wing.
Tony Johnstone-Burt, master of the Queen’s household, said that this would “minimise a risk of catastrophic building failure. It is the best value for money, [the building] remains fully operational . . . and maximises public access.”
Although the parliamentary vote is all but certain to pass, the prospect of months of political wrangling against a backdrop of gathering economic uncertainty will not be welcomed by the palace. It will be the first time that MPs have been asked to change the amount that the royal household receives from public funds since the sovereign grant replaced the civil list five years ago.
Hannah Bardell, SNP MP for Livingston, said: “While steps should be taken to maintain such buildings, I’m sure many will find it hard to grasp the millions available to restore Buckingham Palace when Tory cuts are leaving the poorest in our society to suffer.”
An SNP spokeswoman said it would demand more information on the proposed refurbishment before deciding how to vote on the funds.
Paul Duffree, the royal household’s director of property, said: “The surveys that led to this programme were some of the most detailed work ever undertaken here. The data revealed a number of high risk areas which we need to address as a priority.”
Palace officials claimed that within 50 years the net cost of the work — taking into account efficiency savings and increased income from higher visitor numbers — would drop to £222 million.
- The shadow chancellor John McDonnell, a staunch republican, has backed the £370million restoration and refurbishment of Buckingham Palace, writes James Lyons. The hard-left Labour MP said the Queen’s main residence was a “national monument” that no government would allow to fall into disrepair. Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn had suggested the money should be spent on the NHS, housing, jobs and education instead. However, Mr McDonnell, who joined the Privy Council last week, said: “When you have these old buildings they have to be looked after.”
How costs spiralled in a year
What difference does a year make? About £219 million, according to the palace abacus.
In the summer of last year Buckingham Palace declared that it would need £150 million for a ten-year refit. It was also suggested that the Queen may need to move out.
By yesterday the numbers had swelled: £369 million over ten years was the estimated cost of repairing the building and refurbishment — beginning in the basement, repairing electrics and heating, then switching to the east wing in 2019, moving clockwise around the palace through the south wing, the southwest wing and the north wing.
And the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and other members of the royal household can stay put, barring some localised work that might leave them reaching for their overnight bags.
Ultimately, palace sources said, this was the most cost-effective option, as it would enable the palace to continue functioning, with its 2,500 engagements each year hosting 130,000 people, and a total of 550,000 visitors overall.
So why the change of heart? Palace sources suggested that unlike last year’s figure, yesterday’s was based upon the most detailed survey yet. A source said that the £150 million figure “was one of several estimates. That was an early estimate prepared before the detailed survey was taken. That didn’t include any allowance for inflation over time. Once surveys have been conducted, the scope of the project becomes bigger . . . only once we knew what the scope was, did we know how long it would take.”
Perhaps the discrepancy lies further afield, in Scotland even. Last year the refurbishment and news of the Queen’s temporary new home came after a week of headlines about Scotland withholding funding for the Queen.
An official in London told journalists off the record that the Scottish government would not be handing over its share of the profits from the Crown Estate when its Scottish assets were devolved. Shortly afterwards, the palace revealed that the Queen might have to move out of Buckingham Palace because it needed £150 million of repairs, hoping it would overtake the Scotland story. It didn’t.
It is the latest in a handful of changes to the sovereign grant since 1760, when George III agreed to surrender the income of the Crown Estate to the exchequer in return for a fixed annual payment.
Support was provided in four parts: the civil list, to meet official expenses of the household, and separate grants-in-aid for travel, communications and information and the maintenance of palaces in England and Wales. This has been taken into the sovereign grant since 2012-13.