Writing in the 19th century, Walter Bagehot, author of The English Constitution, observed of the monarchy: “Its mystery is its life. We must not let the light of day into magic.
Some 155 years later, the curtain has been lifted on much of what the royal family does. The era of television, social media, video and streaming means that the affairs of the Queen and her family, divorces, splits and allegations of sexual disgrace in the case of the Duke of York have become the biggest soap opera on the planet.
Still, there’s a lot about “the company” that even the lavish Netflix series The Crown failed to fathom, especially its finances.
Each year, Buckingham Palace solemnly publishes the annual “Sovereign Grant” report, including an audit signed by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
This shows in great detail how much official income the Queen and the eight ‘working’ members of the Royal Family received and how it was spent. Still, that leaves a lot about the royal family’s personal wealth and resources shrouded in Bagehot’s mystery.
The basic facts are that in the financial year 2020-21 (the latest for which there are published accounts) the cost of the Sovereign Grant, paid from Crown Estate revenues, was 85.9 million pound sterling.
The Queen received an additional £9.4million in income from the rental and use of Palace-controlled facilities for functions.
Expenditure was £87.5m (compared to £69.4m the previous year) largely due to higher maintenance costs as a decade-long major refurbishment and modernization of Buckingham Palace are underway.
The annual report contains heaps of detail on staffing levels, salaries, repairs to “Buck House” and royal travel. It is infinitely more informative than what was available when I started writing about it in the 1970s.
In those days, you had to scour the Department of the Environment accounts just to find out how much was being spent on keeping Buck House’s old plumbing in working order.
There is a lot more transparency now, but no one should be fooled into thinking that the sovereign grant is something like the whole story.
The Queen has another pot of revenue from the Duchy of Lancaster flowing into what is known as the ‘private purse’, used to cover other unspecified ‘official expenses’.
The surplus in 2020-21 was £22.3m, down slightly from the previous year. But the estate’s capital value of land and property in five counties jumped 7% to £577.3million. As for the Prince of Wales, the 2020-21 accounts for his Duchy of Cornwall estate show he generated £37m in revenue in 2021 and a surplus of £21m.
The capital value of £1,073 million makes Charles the custodian of over £1 billion in assets.
The heir to the throne, we are assured, has no personal access to the capital value of the estate but is liable to pay tax on the surplus. Amid all the data provided, including a detailed account of a remarkable 76% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, it is not clear how much money, if any, has been gobbled up by Revenue & Customs. Accounts for the year to March 31, 2022 are expected to be released later this month.
Former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne did the Queen a huge service in 2011 when he effectively removed the Royal Family’s annual salary, formerly known as the Civil List, from the parliamentary agenda. Previously, he required regular scrutiny from the Commons and was an easy target for a handful of left-wing MPs too happy to criticize the alleged extravagance and grandeur.
Under the Osborne Accords, the Basic Sovereign Grant is calculated as a percentage of the growing surpluses of the Crown Estate.
These include those in one of London’s most famous shopping spots, Regent Street, as well as the UK foreshore and coastal waters. In recent years, as demand for offshore wind farms has exploded, Crown Estate revenues have also increased. This has allowed the Royal Family to build up additional reserves currently being used for the refurbishment of Buckingham Palace.
The Queen’s personal wealth is still shrouded in secrecy. Forbes magazine, mixing the ‘public’ and ‘private’ assets of the royal finances, recently put it at £22billion, which is almost certainly a wild exaggeration.
The Queen’s private wealth includes palaces owned and maintained by the family, including the Sandringham and Balmoral estate, the royal stamp collection, family art, furniture, vintage cars and other collections. Shares held by the monarch were estimated to be worth up to £450m in the 1990s or £945m today adjusted for inflation, rather than changes in share prices.
Ownership is difficult to trace and the stakes, historically disguised, were held in Bank of England nominee accounts run by the blue-blooded firms of Barings and Cazenove.
Since 1993-1994, the Queen and her family have paid personal income tax. But she enjoys a huge tax exemption for her subjects. The sovereign is exempt from inheritance tax, which means the family estate – land, shares and everything in between – can be passed on to her direct heir, Prince Charles, tax-free. It’s a privilege of fantastic value and no doubt means that the land and other wealth of the royal family remains intact over generations.
As the queen celebrates her platinum jubilee, it is suspected that despite the huge expense of heating her palaces and homes, the cost of living crisis will not trouble her directly. But one also suspects his personal commitment to frugality, Tupperware jars for breakfast cereals and electric fires at a bar, mean thermostats will be set lower nonetheless.
Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail.
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