Andy Wightman on land reform: Who owns the Palace of Holyroodhouse?

The Palace of Holyroodhouse is the Queen's official residence in Scotland
The Palace of Holyroodhouse is the Queen's official residence in Scotland
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The question of who runs and pays for Edinburgh’s royal palace is complicated, writes Andy Wightman

There was good news for the Queen when she arrived at the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the beginning of the month. A planning application for ten short term letting apartments and an education centre had been approved by the City of Edinburgh Council.

I have only been inside the palace twice. The first time was in 1999 when I attended a meeting of senior officials from the Royal Family who were keen to find out how land reform was going to affect them. I asked them who owns and runs the palace and was told that it was, well, complicated.

I recalled that conversation when I saw the planning application and was intrigued to note that it had been submitted by the Royal Household Property Section, which also claims to own the palace and grounds. This is not the case, however. The palace and grounds are an ancient possession of the Crown but whilst 26 Crown properties – including Linlithgow Palace, Stirling Castle, Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Park – were transferred to Scottish Ministers in 1999, no such transfer took place for the palace, even though the palace is public property that has been managed by Historic Scotland and its predecessors since 1851. But a stealthy power grab seems to have been underway over the past 30 years with the Royal Collection Trust – a charity formed in 1987, whose chairman is the Prince of Wales – now employing the palace staff.

The Scottish Government has confirmed that there is a Memorandum of Understanding dating from 2000 between the Lord Chamberlain and Scottish Ministers but my request to see it is on hold until the Royal Household reviews the contents.

In 2014-15, Historic Scotland spent £1.25 million for the upkeep and maintenance of the palace. The majority of this (£967,000) was for Historic Scotland staff and for “staff employed by the Royal Household and recharged to Historic Scotland”. The new agency, Historic Environment Scotland, published no information in its 2015-16 annual report. In other words, the Royal Collection Trust, a private charity that is not accountable to Scottish Ministers or to the Scottish Parliament, employs the visitor staff, gets the Scottish Government to reimburse their salaries and keeps all the entrance money (£3.3m in 2015-16 with a further £1m in shop sales). Meanwhile, Historic Environment Scotland is responsible for meeting the costs of maintaining the fabric of the building. Given this strange relationship, did the Royal Household Property Section consult Scottish Ministers over their development for holiday apartments and who gets to keep the income? Why does the Scottish Government pay for staff now employed by the Royal Collection Trust who were previously direct employees of the Scottish Office? Why, when so many Crown properties were transferred to Scottish ministers in 1999, was the palace excluded when it, like the others, has been managed and paid for by Scottish Government funds? No inquiry has ever taken place by a Committee of the Scottish Parliament into this matter and, despite many questions in the House of Commons prior to 1999, my question is the first to have been asked on the topic in the Scottish Parliament.

We need far greater transparency and accountability on this. It is time ownership of the palace was transferred to Scottish ministers and for a joint investment plan to be agreed with the Royal Household. In return, the Queen would be welcome to stay for free each July, but visitor income should help pay for the upkeep of this historic Edinburgh building.

Andy Wightman is Scottish Green MSP for Lothian