Buckingham Palace's makeover

Royal renovation

The White Drawing Room, with its ornate ceiling, brocade curtains and gilded furniture, is where the royal family have been photographed since 1947.
The White Drawing Room, with its ornate ceiling, brocade curtains and gilded furniture, is where the royal family have been photographed since 1947.ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

Opinion divided as $314m bill may be borne by taxpayers; some want royals out

Wandering through the grand state rooms of Buckingham Palace - with their sumptuous silk walls, marble columns and gigantic glass chandeliers - a visitor would be hard-pressed to believe that this royal residence needs a £150 million (S$314.5 million) makeover.

But it is the "bones" of the 775-room building that need updating. Queen Elizabeth II lives here with deadly asbestos, antiquated plumbing, old electrical wiring and a 60-year-old boiler that struggles to heat the 77,000 sq m space.

Recently, palace aides warned that the Queen, who occupies a nine-room apartment within the palace, may have to vacate her official London residence to allow repairs.

The 300-year-old palace has not been refurbished since 1949, and the plan to modernise it could take up to 10 years to complete.

Queen Elizabeth II lives here with deadly asbestos, antiquated plumbing, old electrical wiring and a 60-year-old boiler that struggles to heat the 77,000 sq m space

"I have visited the private apartments," said a former British diplomat to Singapore. "They were using electric bar heaters to stay warm."

It has been reported that leaking roofs threaten priceless paintings in the Queen's Gallery and the Picture Gallery, and staff have to scurry for buckets when it rains.

Some years ago, crumbling masonry on the facade fell dangerously close to Princess Anne's car.

  • PALACE FACTS

  • • Originally known as Buckingham House, the palace was built by the Duke of Buckingham in 1703. In 1761, George III bought it for his wife, Queen Charlotte. When George IV ascended the throne in 1820, he led its transformation into Buckingham Palace, with the assistance of architect John Nash.

    • While it was used as a royal residence from 1761, it was only designated as an official royal residence by Queen Victoria in 1837.

    • Official royal residences are not owned by the monarch; they are held in trust for future generations. As well as being family homes for members of the royal family, these are also working buildings used for housing staff offices from the royal household, entertaining official guests and hosting formal events and ceremonies. Other official royal residences are Windsor Castle in Berkshire and the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland.

    • Queen Elizabeth also spends time at her private residences, which she owns. Well-known private residences include Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where she usually spends the summer, and Sandringham House in Norfolk, where she traditionally spends Christmas.

    • Today, Buckingham Palace has 775 rooms, including 19 state rooms, 52 royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms and 78 bathrooms.

According to the Sovereign Grant Annual Report 2014-2015, the royals spent £11.7 million on property maintenance last year, including work at Buckingham Palace. Public opinion on the repairs is divided, given that taxpayers may have to foot the bill. Just two weeks ago, an independent report concluded that Westminster Palace, where the Houses of Parliament and iconic clock tower Big Ben are located, will need £3.5 billion worth of repairs over six years to tackle subsidence, outdated cabling and, again, asbestos.

If the 150-year-old building is not vacated during repairs, the project could take 32 years and costs could balloon to £5.7 billion.

The palace bill seems a modest sum to pay to maintain a major tourist draw, especially when half a million visitors pay more than £6 million to visit the state rooms every summer when they are open to the public.

But anti-monarchists want the royals out permanently. Mr Graham Smith, chief executive of the Republic group, said in a statement: "Buckingham Palace is national property treated like a private home occupied by a rogue tenant. Years of failure on the part of the royals have left the buildings in desperate need of repair... MPs and campaigners have long called on the palace to be opened to tourists all year round, to pay for costs of maintenance.

"The royals have refused. So it is time they moved out and the palace turned into a world-class museum and art gallery."

To the rest of the world, however, Buckingham Palace is not merely a building.

"It is a symbol of the country, of Britishness," said tourist Ryuichi Hikano, 56, as he watched the Changing of Guard outside the palace with his wife and son.

Austrian visitor Gabrielle Januschkowett said the palace is special. "It is not about Buckingham Palace, it is about the Queen, so it is worth it. It is very important for tourism," said the 52-year-old, during a visit with schoolchildren.

The building and its interiors also evoke a sense of history, grandeur and continuity. The royal family have been photographed in the White Drawing Room - resplendent with its ornate coving, brocade curtains and gilded furniture - since 1947.

The grand ballroom is where knighthoods are conferred and visiting heads of state - including Singapore President Tony Tan last October - are hosted.

Formal wedding photographs and royal addresses take place in the Throne Room.

"It (the repair bill) is a lot of money, especially when some of us are struggling to pay our taxes," said kitchen assistant Miranda Kick, 48. "And the Queen is one of the richest people in the country."

Despite their misgivings, she and her friends are willing to jostle with the tourist hordes just to have their picture taken in front of the palace. "On the whole, though, it is our Queen's house," she said.

The Queen received an income of £37.9 million last year, calculated as 15 per cent of the annual profits of the Crown Estate, which manages £11 billion worth of property assets for the sovereign.

Surplus revenue from these assets are paid to the Treasury. The Queen spent £35.7 million of it; the leftover income barely makes a dent in the renovation bill. It has been reported that the Royal Household will discuss with the government how best to fund the palace repairs.

If the work goes ahead, the Queen and Prince Philip are likely to decamp to Windsor Castle - their weekend home and setting for numerous state functions - for up to a year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2015, with the headline 'Royal renovation'. Print Edition | Subscribe