A Brief Guide: The Crown Estate
The Windsor family have done fantastically well out of the British people. There should be no surprise that as the threat to their feudal privilegs grows they are looking for ways to ensure that whatever happens their good fortune does not turn to hard times.
They have promised to go quietly when the people tell them to. But they have not promised to go without one more grab at our money. The Crown Estate seems set to become an important and audacious element in their bid to protect the only way of life they have known.
In 2011 they achieved an important step towards this objective when Parliament agreed that existing grants should be replaced with one grant of an amount equaling 15 per cent of the Estate's growing income. The Financial Times reported "A mood of austerity may be stalking Britain, but the champagne is still flowing at Buckingham Palace".
The Crown Estate consists of property holdings worth £12bn in 2016. They are concentrated in London where there are over 600 properties, valued at more than £2,626M including embassies and West End stores. Outside the capital the portfolio includes Ascot horse race course, a castle and more humdrum commercial properties, including fish farms. The Estate include 274,000 acres of farm land and forest. The rural properties were valued at £1.2bn in 2012, with revenue of £25.9m. Over half of the coastline and the seabed out to 12 miles is also a part of the Estate. This was valued at £725.6m in 2012 and generated profits of £55.6m. Wind farm owners pay the Estate to locate 1,500 wind turbines on the seabed. This gave the Estate a profit of £15m in 2013-14.
The profit from all of the Estate's properties in the 2015-16 financial year was £304m.
These holdings originated when King William the Conqueror expropriated vast amounts of property in the eleventh century. Of course he did not take this property simply as a private brigand. He was the ruler of the nation and acted as such. In other words the property was taken in the name of the state. It has belong to the state ever since.
The rents earned from the property financed the administration of the country, not the personal needs of one family. What has changed is that the monarchy is no longer identical to the state.
It was 700 years after William conquered that the incumbent king, George III, gave up this revenue to parliament, in return for a stipend, known as the civil list. He wanted a more reliable income than the rents guaranteed. Even at this time the monarchy still had much real power and was much more than a ceremonial appendage of the state. This transfer of income was, therefore, between one part of the state and another.
The Windsors have been sneakily contesting this for some time, however. The Crown Estate Web site describes the estate as part of the hereditary possessions of the Sovereign. One of the first proposals of the Way Ahead Group (a committee responsible for reforming the monarchy to improve it's chances of survival) was that after a break of 250 years the family again be paid the Crown Estate rents, in return for giving up the much "smaller civil list payments. In The Royals Kitty Kelley comments on the admiration of a government minister for this wheeze that it showed, "the respect of a pickpocket for a bank robber".
The idea was raised again in 2001. Liz's chief financial officer (Keeper of the Privy Purse) Michael Peat claimed that because the state receives the Estate profits the monarchy costs taxpayers nothing. The taxpayers were making a profit from the deal, the former KMPG director claimed. "In fact the queen doesn't cost the taxpayer anything" he said.
In the New York Times Dr Joanne Horton, an accounting expert at the London School of Economics called this claim "propaganda" and "a public relations stunt." She was not the first to see things that way. In an internal Treasury memo in 1952 a senior civil servant, Burke Trend, wrote that " ... the hereditary revenues which it is now customary for the Crown to surrender at the outset of each reign are simply a historical relic from much earlier days."
The writer who uncovered this memo, Phillip Hall, calls the arrangement "historical fiction." He notes that the Estate only belonged to the monarch when the monarch was responsible for all civil government expenses, which ended at the end of the 18th century.
The idea that half the nation's coastline and the sea bed could be the private property of the Windsor family is, of course, absurd.
And it is being challenged. In March 2014 the Scottish Affairs Committee of Parliament said in a report that the Scottish seabed and shore should be taken from the Crown Estate and put under the control of the Scottish Parliament. In its report on this The Independent stated that "Ian Davidson, chairman of the committee, said that if Scots were given power over the sea, then he expected people in England and Wales would press for the same rights, but warned that the Royal Family might oppose the move".
Later that year three Scottish island local authorities, Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles, called on the UK government to devolve to them responsibility for the Crown Estate assets in their jurisdictions.
If there was still any doubt about ownership of Crown Estate assets it was ended in 2015. In that year the cross-party Smith Commission recommended that management of such assets in Scotland and the income they generate be transferred to the Scottish Parliament. Following that transfer management of those assets would be devolved to local authorities. The Scotland Act 2016 made these recommendations law.
That change of control was possible only because the assets of the Crown Estate are state assets, not the property of the Windsor clan.
"To make the salt, which Mr Lea-Wilson supplies under the Halen Mon name, he first pays the Queen for the seawater."
Financial Times report on a company supplying Tesco supermarkets with sea salt. In fact Mr. Lea-Wilson pays the Crown Estate, not Ms. Windsor.
In short the Crown Estate is no more the property of the Windsors than are the Crown Courts. Liz Windsor has no more right to it than the Prime Minister has to 10 Downing Street. In spite of this the Windsor's staunch friends in the Conservative Party, aided by Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians, agreed in 2011 to give them 15 per cent of the annual income from the Estate. The Financial Times commented that "The princely budgets will never be lesser than the previous year's. When the Crown Estate does well, royals win: when it does not, taxpayers lose". The Daily Mail has estimated that this could eventually mean the Windsors taking £68m a year, twice their current take, as wind farms increase the Estate's revenue.
If the Windsors did manage to make the Estate their personal property the taxpayers would lose a source of annually increasing income, currently £285m a year. And when monarchy is finally sent packing, it would go with the biggest golden handshake in history.
We must not allow that to happen. It may be called the Crown Estate but it belongs to the people.