Saturday, 19 November 2016

Buckingham Palace: time for a rethink?

The Royal Family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace - is it time to turn it from home to office?
(photo by Carfax2 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

At a time of year when many of us need a new boiler, repair bills are never far from thoughts. But when the repair bill is 369 million, that really concentrates the mind. Buckingham Palace is getting a refit and the invoice has not only caused a huge row, it's reignited the debate about where the Royal Family should live and who should foot the bill. So is it time to change things up at Buckingham Palace?

Let's get the maths out of the way first. Buckingham Palace needs a lot of work and on November 18th 2016 it was announced that it will undergo a ten year refurbishment costing 369 million. It's going to be done in phases, starting in April 2017, but that extra cash will come from the Crown Estate. It's a decade of more money for the royals, essentially, and that's where the row has started.

The argument has heightened because this is essential work. The electrics, boilers, lead pipes and cabling at the Palace need to be replaced to avoid 'catastrophe'. Yes, there are fears that unless this work happens now then the world famous building is at risk of fire. So far, so necessary you might think but when we remember that some of the basics haven't been touched for over 60 years and there have been warnings in recent times that things were getting a bit, well raggedy, then you can see why this has turned into a right royal row.

The amount of money being spent has raised questions about what we get in return. It's put a spotlight on the role of Buckingham Palace and given us all a reminder that while it is the London base of the Monarchy, filled with offices and administrative hubs, the Queen spends just over a third of the year there. It's used for big occasions like State Visits, low key events like private audiences and as a base for meetings with politicians. But when the royals themselves are putting their heads down to sleep in other residences for a large part of the year then is it really worthwhile to keep Buckingham Palace on as a home?

It became the official residence of the Royal Family in 1837 but just as the era of Victoria has been replaced in the history books by the epoch of Elizabeth II then maybe it's time for a changing of the guard in the royal address book. There is no reason why Buckingham Palace can't retain all its state functions, administrative roles and touristy bits but would it work better as an office rather than a home?

The Queen, as she enters her tenth decade, enjoys her time at Sandringham and with transport links the way they are, getting to London is really no bother at all. There is no reason that the official business of state can't carry on at the Palace but turning it into an administrative base could make it more efficient. Move all the royal offices from their various homes around London and suddenly Buckingham Palace is the centre of a leaner, more focused royal machine. It makes it clear to anyone looking that money is being spent on keeping the monarchy, as part of our constitution, in shape. This is the base of the Head of State, after all, but does that mean they actually have to live there?

Turning it into a base rather than a mix of office and private home would also allow longer opening times at the Palace, increasing the tourist trade and when so much emphasis is put on how much money the Monarchy brings in via visitors then that has to be a permanent consideration. The state functions, like the banquets associated with official visits or the summer season of garden parties, would carry on as they do and the balcony would still be there for appearances on major events. Let's face it, many of the events that take place at the Palace go on when the Queen isn't there. Inviting people round to celebrate their achievements in a royal building isn't dependent on the Head of State actually sleeping under its roof.  Turning it totally into a business rather than the strange mix of home and office it is now could make it a stronger, more viable proposition as the Royal Family heads into the modern depths of the 21st century.

Because this row has shown how difficult mixing the ancient institution with modern life can be. The Queen is about as popular as she has ever been and the Monarchy has enjoyed one of the most sparkling patches of its recent history with high approval ratings and huge interest and support. TV series like The Crown are getting big audiences because of their subject matter. Royalty is enjoying a golden era right now. However, just one story about money and things look less glittering. While the timing might not be great (coming just days after a story about a lack of affordable housing across the UK) and the Queen's popularity will no doubt help ride this storm out, it's a reminder that a lot of people feel very strongly about how much the Monarchy costs.

The cash itself will come from the Crown Estate, a portfolio of property formalised in 1760. It belongs to the reigning monarch for the length of their rule and surplus money from it goes to the Treasury. It then provides the Monarch with the Sovereign Grant, a yearly payment to support official duties. Right now, that's made up of 15% of the surplus but to pay for the work that will go up to 25%, if MPs approve.

The Queen will stay in residence throughout the repair programme but perhaps it's time for a rethink. Why not take this chance to turn Buckingham Palace into a new heart of the Monarchy by changing it into an office while allowing the monarch of the time to make another of their homes into their permanent base? Buck House for the State and public aspects and a smaller property as a place to call their very own?

In this modern age, royals don't really need to live in palaces and castles all the time. We know they don't, anyway. Places like Buckingham Palace were built over decades to provide a physical representation of the grandeur of the throne. Much of that grandeur is now wrapped up in the work that they do so put the palace at the heart of that. Money will always talk and when it comes to royalty in the 21st century, the conversation will remain tricky. Make life easier on what is a great institution and use this repair programme to turn the palace into a modern machine to keep the Monarchy strong.

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