A refurbishment is overdue.

Photograph: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

The Queen and Big Ben Deserve a Refurb

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was London bureau chief for Bloomberg News and is the author of “Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable.”
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Whether you’re an ardent monarchist or a staunch republican, the U.K. government's decision to allocate 369 million pounds ($460 million) to fund a 10-year refurbishment of Buckingham Palace should be welcomed. Unfortunately, the British public's complicated relationship with both the Royal Family's finances and the nation's landmark buildings means there's a storm of protest instead. And that in turn leaves another of the country's iconic buildings in jeopardy.

The Palace of Westminster, home to Parliament in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, hasn't been properly maintained for decades. The neglect is such that the bill for a full renovation could surpass 4 billion pounds; and the longer politicians flinch from signing off on the vital program, the higher those costs are likely to rise. The committee has recommended that a so-called delivery authority be established with a view to getting the works underway early in the next decade. 

But more than 121,000 people have signed a petition objecting to the use of public money to repair what is ostensibly the Queen's house, and calling on the Royal Family to pay for the repairs itself:

The Royals expect us to dig deeper to refurbish Buckingham Palace. The Crown's wealth is inestimable. This is, in a word, outrageous. Tax payers are paying for it. The Crown and its estates should be made to fund its own renovations.

This conveniently ignores several truths. Buckingham Palace may well be assigned to the Royal family, but in truth it belongs to the nation, albeit under the stewardship of whoever happens to wear the crown at any given time. Moreover, while the money is coming from the Treasury (and therefore taxpayers) in the form of an increase in the sovereign grant paid annually, one of the biggest contributors to the Treasury's tax coffers is, yes, the Crown Estate.

As Tim Worstall, a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London, argued this week, the relationship between what the Royal Family ostensibly owns and how the income from those holdings is distributed and taxed is fiendishly complicated. But the narrow truth is that the Crown Estate, which belongs to the monarch, pays its profit to the Treasury. In the most recent accounts, that was worth more than 304 million pounds; in the past decade, the estate has handed over 2.4 billion pounds. As Worstall says:

The important point to grasp is that Buckingham Palace does not belong to Mrs. E. Windsor, it belongs to the Monarch. The Crown Estate does not belong to Mrs. E. Windsor, it belongs to the Monarch. And the profits on one part of the Monarch’s estate are being used to pay for the upkeep of another part of the Monarch’s estate. That is, the Crown is already paying for these repairs to Buckingham Palace. Which is what makes demands that the Crown, or its estate, should pay for the repairs to Buckingham Palace so damn ignorant.

Unfortunately, the furor over one palace is likely to cast a shadow over a second much-needed renovation. The Palace of Westminster covers eight acres of ground, contains more than 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases and more than three kilometers of passages over seven levels. It's a Unesco World Heritage site. It's also a potential deathtrap. The non-partisan government committee that's been asked to investigate the state of the building had this to say in September:

The Palace of Westminster faces an impending crisis which we cannot responsibly ignore. There is a substantial and growing risk of either a single, catastrophic event, such as a major fire, or a succession of incremental failures in essential systems which would lead to Parliament no longer being able to occupy the Palace.

The buildings themselves are structurally solid, so for now Big Ben (the bell housed in the iconic Elizabeth Tower) is safe. But the problem with antiquated electrical systems isn't the mild inconvenience of a flickering television screen; it's that ageing, vulcanized wires could catch fire.

Many of the systems in Westminster "reached the projected end of their lifecycles in the 1970s and 1980s," the September report says. The patchwork of repairs means new pipes and cables are lying on top of old networks "with little knowledge of what the existing services are, where they go, or whether they are still live."

Deloitte, a consultancy firm, has analyzed three scenarios. If Parliament moves out of the palace entirely, the works would take six years to complete. A partial shift to temporary digs would extend that to 11 years, while a rolling refurbishment program conducted without anyone leaving the buildings could take a staggering 32 years to finish. No wonder the government committee is recommending "a full decant" while the works are completed.

The architecture and planning firm Gensler has proposed floating a temporary structure on the Thames at a cost of 160 million pounds to house lawmakers while the Westminster building works are completed:

Source: Gensler

The problem for British politicians is that they're still tainted by the 2009 expenses scandal, which involved members of parliament abusing housing allowances, dodging taxes and, in one infamous case, claiming 1,645 pounds for a duck house floated on a garden pond. So they're understandably reluctant to ask the public to upgrade their offices.

They shouldn't be. The Palace of Westminster is a national treasure -- and also an architectural beacon of parliamentary democracy in a world that can use such symbols today. If a fire were to rampage through the building destroying the structure, bitter recriminations would soon fill the deafening silence left by the hushing of Big Ben.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net