Buckingham Palace renovation: 9 things you may not know

What needs to be renovated at Buckingham Palace? Who’s paying? Is it worth it?

Buckingham Palace. (William Fawcett/iStock)

Buckingham Palace. (William Fawcett/iStock)

The Queen’s officials are nothing if not organized. So before announcing a massive 10-year, $700-million renovation to Buckingham Palace, they had a cornucopia of diagrams, photos and explanations of the intended work ready, so they could plaster the royal website and social media feeds with details.

They knew to expect push-back from those who see such a massive refurbishment as a waste of money. Soon enough, Twitter was filled with such comments.

But what needs to be renovated? Why is it taking 10 years and who is paying for it? There are a multitude of questions, so here are nine, along with answers, regarding the Buckingham Palace re-do:

Q: What’s the big deal about Buckingham Palace?

A: In a nut shell, this is a palace filled with royals, packed with staff and crammed with priceless treasures. For this, I’m creating bullet points from the handy-dandy Buckingham Palace Reservicing Programme Summary Report (You thought I was exaggerating the royal household’s preparations, didn’t you?):

  • The Palace is where The Queen carries out Her official, ceremonial, diplomatic and representational duties as Head of State of the United Kingdom and Head of the Commonwealth.
  • The Palace hosts an estimated 90,000 people each year, who attend a range of events and functions, from small lunches to large Receptions. In addition, The Queen’s Garden Parties are held each summer at the Palace and are attended by approximately 40,000 members of the public. Over 30 Investitures are also held each year at the Palace, with each one being attended by approximately 350 people receiving honours including their families.
  • The Palace houses part of the Royal Collection, which is one of the largest and most important art collections in the world, and one of the last great European royal art collections to remain intact. Comprising more than a million objects, the Collection is a unique and invaluable record of the personal tastes of kings and queens over the past 500 years. The Royal Collection is priceless and is held in trust by The Queen as Sovereign for Her successors and the Nation.
  • During the summer opening of Buckingham Palace, the public are able to visit the State Rooms to see the Royal Collection and special exhibitions. Over half a million visitors visit the Palace during its summer opening.
  • It is also the official residence for The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh, and other Members of the Royal Family, including The Princess Royal, The Duke of York and The Earl and Countess of Wessex.
  • Buckingham Palace is one of the few Head of State residences around the world which is also regularly used as residential accommodation for visiting Heads of State on official UK tours, providing international delegations with an appropriately prestigious welcome.
  • The Palace also provides the Royal Household with a wide range of facilities necessary to deliver the day-to-day operations in support of The Queen, with significant office accommodation for the approximately 300 office-based staff employed by the Royal Household, including key worker residential accommodation for those staff who require accommodation for the effective performance of their duties

Q: If Buckingham Palace was being advertised for sale, would the realtor say it needs cosmetic fixes or a complete gut-job?

A: It’s one of those places that looks good in the brochure, but don’t look too closely in the basement. The ornately gilded surfaces of the palace are in decent shape, but the utilities hidden behind walls, and under the floors, are an outdated, dangerous nightmare. In the last few years, experts have been poring over the building, peering behind walls, and totting up the problems.

The report is grim, according to Sovereign Grant Review (more on that review later):

“As the Palace’s electrical cabling, plumbing and heating have not been updated since the 1950s, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the building’s infrastructure is now in urgent need of an overhaul to avoid the very real danger of catastrophic failure leading to fire or flood, and incalculable damage to the building and priceless works of art in the Royal Collection.”

The condition of the palace and reservicing requirement

The technical assessments established that there are a series of very old (over 60 years), fragile systems with a high risk of failure that need to be replaced as a matter of urgency over the next two years (2017-19). These include Vulcanised India Rubber electrical cabling, electrical panels, distribution boards, generators, boilers, drainage pipework and data systems. Not carrying out these works would come with significant risks, including:

  • Fire. A significant proportion of the wiring within the Palace is in a high risk category and needs immediate attention to reduce the very real risk of fire and failure. Some of the electrical (wired) systems are over 60 years old.
  • Declining resilience and operational failure. The majority of the Mechanical & Electrical (M&E) services and systems are over 40 years old (some are over 60 years old) and are degrading, thereby creating a number of significant risks for the Palace. Total failure is an ever-increasing risk.
  • Degrading occupational environment. The Palace’s boilers are over 33 years old, and spare parts for them are difficult to source. This will continue to compromise the ability to provide acceptable living conditions, maintain the desired temperatures to preserve the works of art in the Royal Collection which are on display within the Palace, to provide compliant office working conditions for Royal Household employees and achieve energy efficiency.
  • Damage to building fabric. The Palace’s above ground drainage system consists of a mixture of lead and cast iron pipework. Failures due to sagging have been identified in the lead drainage pipework and joints. The potential for damage to the building fabric is high, particularly in areas where the lead pipework is buried in walls and floors.

(Hint: When reports use words like “danger,” “catastrophic failure” and “incalculable damage,” it’s fair to say that the writers want the work to start tomorrow, if not today.)

Q: What exactly will the “Reservicing programme” do?

A: Hopefully that name will change—how about Buckingham Palace 2.0?—but one step at a time.

The Reservicing Programme will replace:

  • 100 miles of electrical cabling.
  • 6500 electrical sockets.
  • 5000 light fittings.
  • 330 distribution boards (fuse boxes).
  • 20 miles heating pipework.
  • 10 miles hot and cold water pipework.
  • 2500 radiators.
  • 500 pieces of sanitary ware. (me again: that’s the industry term for toilets, sinks and showers)
  • 20 miles of skirting board.
  • 30,000m² floorboards taken up, equivalent to 3.5 football (soccer) pitches

Q: Umm, not to be disrespectful of Her Majesty the Queen (she’s a pretty nice girl, as the Beatles said), but how did things get so bad?

A: For this, I need to do a dive into royal finances (remember that Sovereign Grant from earlier). Stick with me.

The Crown Estate is a vast property portfolio tracing back to the Conquest in 1066. It is “owned by the Monarch in right of the Crown. This means that the Queen owns it by virtue of holding the position of reigning Monarch, for as long as she is on the throne, as will her successor,” says the Crown Estate’s website. It owns Regent Street in London and other prestigious parts of Britain.

Run by professional managers, it’s a cash cow. But not for the royal family.

As the Crown Estate says, “Since 1760, the net income of The Crown Estate has been surrendered to the Exchequer by the Monarch under successive Civil List Acts, passed at the beginning of each reign.” In other words, the monarch gets stable annual funding, the government gets the rest of the profits. That was once a good deal for all, but slowly, as the Crown Estate’s holdings increased in value, the balance shifted until now, the government takes the lion’s share.

Until recently, the royal household states, its funding came in four parts:

  • The Civil List, which was provided to meet the official expenses of the Royal Household
  • Royal Travel grant-in-aid from the relevant government departments
  • Royal Communications grant-in-aid from the relevant government departments
  • Maintenance of the Occupied Royal Palaces in England and Wales grant-in-aid from the relevant government departments

(Notice there’s nothing about the Queen’s salary? That’s because she doesn’t have one. This funding is to pay for her staff, official expenses and palaces. Furthermore, she pays for expenses of other royals out of her own personal wealth, while Prince Charles pays for his growing family from the ancient Duchy of Cornwall profits.)

The problem

Those separate pots of financing were restrictive. Royal officials couldn’t shuffle savings from, say, royal travel, into the maintenance pot to pay for a new roof. Also, every time the Queen needed to update the Civil List to stay on top of inflation, headlines would scream about how much money was going into her pocket. So royal officials got really good at saving money everywhere they could, and spending as little as possible.

Don’t believe me? This is what the National Audit Office said: Between 1991-92 and 2011-12 the Household reduced net expenditure from the equivalent of £72.6 million to £32.9 million in real terms, a reduction of £39.7 million (55 per cent). As Figure 6 overleaf shows the most significant reduction in the Household’s net expenditure in this period occurred between 1991-92 and 2000-01, when spending reduced by £34 million in real terms.

That system of payments led to a growing backlog of issues. In 2009, a hunk of the facade of Buckingham Palace fell, nearly missing a police officer and Princess Anne’s car. (Don’t think Buckingham Palace is alone: the British Parliament needs billions spent on it; the Canadian Parliament is in the midst of a retrofit so long, and so expensive, that it’s hard to remember exactly when it started.)

As every homeowner knowns, keeping up with regular maintenance is hard enough. And every now and again, maintenance isn’t enough: the place needs a full reno.

A new system

In 2011, the old financing system was consolidated by the Sovereign Grant Act into one pool of financing: “The act set the initial grant for 2012-13 at £31 million. For subsequent years the level of the grant has been based on a proportion of The Crown Estate’s net income, which initially has been set at ‘15% of the net income of The Crown Estate in the year two years prior to the funding year.’ ”

In recent years, experts have analyzed just how back the backlog has gotten.

Remember that Sovereign Grant Review? Well, it’s an analysis of how well the Sovereign Grant is going. It’s done by the royal trustees, who are, well, kinda important (the Prime Minister, the chancellor of the exchequer and the keeper of the Privy Purse).

The report states: “Since the introduction of the grant, the Royal Household has committed to allocate at least 50% of the annual increase in the grant to property maintenance in order to reduce the backlog in essential maintenance. Despite this commitment being met, the latest Condition Assessment survey of the Occupied Royal Palaces Estate highlighted that 45% of the Estate was below target condition, which is an increase of 6% since the last survey at 31 March 2012 (39%).

“The works needed for the reservicing of Buckingham Palace have been considered as a separate, discrete element of the property maintenance 10 year plan due to the programme scope being substantially different to the other priorities for property maintenance investment in the period 2016-21.”

Q: How much are all these repairs going to cost?

It’s going to cost around $700 million, tax included for a 10-year plan. “The estimated capital cost of £369m will be funded by a temporary uplift in the Sovereign Grant, from 15 per cent to 25 per cent of Crown Estate net income,” the press release states.

Historic renovations are expensive. It’s a Grade I-listed property (the highest heritage grade), so contractors can’t just go down to Home Depot to pick up supplies. Everything has to be approved and vetted. And it’s not like they can strip the rooms back to studs.

Q: Why should taxpayers pay for it?

A: Are taxpayers actually paying for it? It’s a matter of interpretation, since the money comes from the Crown Estate through the government’s books and then back to the monarch. What is certain is that $700 million isn’t going to the government.

For those asking why the Queen shouldn’t pay for it, the answer is simple: this isn’t the Queen’s personal palace. She can’t rent out rooms, or sell off a Rembrandt or two to pay for the renovation. She lives there as head of state. Her family lives there as members of the royal family. It’s like asking a prime minister to pay to redo the plumbing at 10 Downing Street.

Q: Does the Queen have to move out?

A: Nope. “The most critical work will begin in April 2017 and Her Majesty will remain in residence throughout,” the press release said. Also, she’s not always at her London residence. She spends a lot of time at Windsor Castle, and her two private estates of Balmoral and Sandringham.

Q: So what will the palace look like after all the work is done?

A: Pretty much as it looks now, given it’s a listed heritage property. But behind the scenes, it promises to be a lot more efficient.

  • It will be wired for the 21st century.
  • The annual energy consumption of the palace will drop by 40 per cent (they’re putting solar panels on inconspicuous parts of the roof).
  • Public access increases by over 115,000 visitors per annum by extending the summer opening by 15 days. And they get a dedicated visitor entrance, thus ending those maddening security line-ups.

Q: Is it worth it?

A: Yes. Also, what’s the alternative: to let it fall into ruins?

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