Holyrood Palace planning application prompts questions of fairness & transparency

The Queen arrived at Holyrood Palace last weekend to the news that a planning application for ten short term letting apartments and an education centre together with other improvements to the Palace had been approved under delegated powers by officers of the City of Edinburgh Council. The developments on the Abbey Strand will displace a bookshop and stores currently occupied and operated by Historic Environment Scotland.

I have only been inside Holyrood 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 the much anticipated land reforms of the early days of devolution were going to affect them. I advised them that they had nothing to worry about and then asked a question of my own. “Who owns and runs Holyrood Palace?”, I asked. After a pause, I was informed 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 the ownership of Scottish Ministers in 1999, no such transfer took place for the Palace. But like these other historic properties, Holyrood Palace is public property that has been managed by Historic Scotland and its predecessors including the Ministry of Public Works since 1851.

But a stealthy power grab seems to have been underway over the past 30 years by the Lord Chamberlain who took over employment of all Palace Staff from the then Scottish Development Department. The Royal Collection Trust - a charity formed in 1987 with the Prince of Wales as Chairman and trustees including the Lord Chamberlain, the Queen’s Private Secretary and the Keeper of the Privy Purse – now employs the staff working at the Palace.

In an attempt to find out how this arrangement works, I asked the Cabinet Secretary, Fiona Hyslop about it in a Written Question in early June. She revealed that there was a Memorandum of Understanding dating from 2000 but that she did not hold a copy despite the agreement being between the Lord Chamberlain and Scottish Ministers. My request was treated as a Freedom of Information request and I have asked for a Review.

What can be gleaned from Historic Scotland accounts begs some big questions, however. In 2014-15 the agency 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 (£3.3 million in 2015-16 with a further £1 million in shop sales). Meanwhile Historic Environment Scotland is responsible for meeting the costs of maintaining the fabric of the building.

Given this strange relationship (described to me by one insider as “complex” and with “grey parts that are unknown”), it is vital that there is greater transparency. In particular, did the “Royal Household Property Section” consult Scottish Ministers over their development plans given that the Historic Environment Scotland’s bookshop and stores are being taken over? 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 Holyrood Palace excluded when it, like the others, has been managed and paid for by Scottish Government funds?

In 2009 the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee published a critical report of the governance and maintenance of Occupied Royal Palaces. No inquiry has ever taken place by a Committee of the Scottish Parliament and, despite many questions in the House of Commons prior to 1999, my Question is the first ever to have been asked on the topic in the Scottish Parliament.

Given that Crown property rights have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament since the outset, I suggest that the ownership of the Palace be transferred to Scottish Ministers and a joint investment plan is agreed with the Royal Household. In return, the Queen is welcome to stay for free during her week in July.

Nicola Sturgeon visited the Queen in the Palace this week. Next year the two of them should sign off a new and transparent agreement that will bring transparency and fairness to the management of this historic Scottish property.

This article first appeared in the National.