'Two-kitchen Kate' stirs royal spending ruckus
Public scrutiny focusing on Duke and Duchess of Cambridge
For the young royals who have prided themselves on trying to look ordinary, the headlines of late haven't been particularly kind.
"Two-kitchen Kate," otherwise known as Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, has been the target of U.K. tabloid vitriol after the multimillion-dollar renovations to the London palace apartment she shares with Prince William and their young son, Prince George, were shown to include two places to prepare meals.
William himself was also given something of a bumpy ride after it was reported that his grandmother, the Queen, gave him a pricey helicopter for his 32nd birthday last month. (In fact, she didn't give him a chopper, the monarchy merely leased one for several members of the Royal Family to use.)
In any event, royal spending, whether in the U.K. or when the royals visit countries such as Canada, has always been a bit of a lightning rod.
The unusual aspect this time is that the controversies seem to be hitting William and Kate, two of the most popular young royals. They also may reveal some misconceptions around the complex nature of funding an institution that has an historic and, at times, controversial relationship with the taxpayer.
"There has always been public scrutiny of royal finances, and that tends to be cyclical," says Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal historian and blogger.
"In periods of recession, or periods when the monarchy is more unpopular, the royal finances receive more attention."
And since the recession of 2008, she adds, there has been more scrutiny of all the royal families in Europe.
As for William and Kate, particularly with their 2011 marriage and the birth nearly a year ago of Prince George, they have proven to be a particularly popular arm of the House of Windsor, dusting off its image as a fusty, tradition-bound institution.
At the same time, however, a few cracks have appeared in their carefully constructed public persona.
"William and Kate aren't humble — they're a pair of spoiled kids wasting YOUR money," read one particularly pointed headline in the Daily Mirror recently.
As Harris sees it, there are several reasons behind the recent scrutiny of their finances, including the tabloid interest in trying to break through their wall of privacy.
Another, she says, is "because there is still uncertainty about William's role.
"He was a search and rescue pilot, and then he was taking some time to devote to his philanthropic work regarding conservation, and now there's once again speculation back and forth — will he become a full-time member of the Royal Family, will he return to his work as a pilot, possibly as an air ambulance pilot?"
That said, the reports he had received a helicopter for his birthday were off base, says Harris. Buckingham Palace, where aides insisted the leased machine would be used by several members of the Royal Family, said the chopper would provide "good value for money," the Daily Telegraph reported.
The helicopter is a prime example of some of the misconceptions about royal finances, Harris says, noting "that it was reported as an expensive birthday present for William, when the helicopter is being leased to assist a number of members of the Royal Family with their royal duties."
The actual cost and duration of the lease for the $11-million helicopter likely won't be known until next year's annual accounting. But the sum is coming out of what's called the sovereign grant, which some people, at least, say is taxpayer supported.
The cost of sovereignty
Expenses that help members of the Royal Family carry out their duties come from the sovereign grant, a new lump sum arrangement that includes what was previously called the civil list.
That grant is currently set at 15 per cent of the net surplus income from Crown lands that were, in historic times, directly owned by the sovereign and are now administered by the British government. And in 2013/14, it amounted to £36.1 million, or nearly $66 million Cdn.
"These sums are not infinite," says Harris.
"There have been reports that the renovations to Kensington Palace mean that repairs to Buckingham Palace will be delayed, so this is simply not a fund that can be constantly drawn on. It's a fixed percentage that the Queen receives each year towards the Royal Family carrying out its duties."
Indeed, much attention was focused on reports earlier this year that the royal household spent more than it received from the sovereign grant in 2013, and covered the shortfall from a reserve that was down to its last million pounds.
But some observers sloughed off any suggestion of real money troubles at the Palace.
"The idea that Her Majesty is down to her last million quid makes for good headlines but the truth is far less dramatic," Harry Mount wrote in The Daily Telegraph.
"The gradual draw-down of that reserve was always the express intention of the royal household and the treasury. The reserve had been carefully squirrelled away by the household to deal with a period of royal austerity."
Royal expenditures include money from the sovereign grant. Separate from that are their private incomes.
For example, the Queen, who has paid income tax for two decades and is reportedly quite frugal when it comes to her personal habits, earns investment income and revenue from the Duchy of Lancaster, an estate of almost 19,000 hectares that includes urban developments and farmland.
Prince Charles receives income from Britain's other duchy, the Duchy of Cornwall, and it's been reported he is covering some of the expenses for renovations to the apartment William and Kate have moved into at Kensington Palace.
Those renovations have totalled more than $7.3 million Cdn. Some reports suggest the refurbishment of a 350-square-foot kitchen cost more than $310,000. A second, smaller private family kitchen was also added, and reports say that work was financed privately.
Harris says it's difficult to say how much the structure of the monarchy costs the taxpayer.
"There have been a number of figures provided, and sometimes these figures are criticized for not taking into account the full extent of security, for instance," she says.
"Certainly there are republicans who've argued that … as the Crown lands are administered by the state, if there wasn't a monarchy that perhaps this percentage would go towards other public projects and not toward the monarchy," says Harris.
"But there are expenses attached to any head of state."