Deutsche Welle (English edition)

The Crown Estate: The mysterious property empire behind Queen Elizabeth II

One of the largest property groups in Europe is directly tied to Queen Elizabeth II. Strictly speaking, the 95-yearold monarch doesn't own it. But neither does the government, making it complex legally.


Regent Street is one of London's best-known thoroughfa­res. The 1.3-kilometer (0.8mile) stretch intersects the districts of Soho and Mayfair in the heart of the city's famous West End. It is lined with well-known shops, bars and restaurant­s.

As commercial real estate goes, it is about as prime as it gets. Remarkably, practicall­y every square inch of the street is owned by a single company: The Crown Estate.

This is clearly not just any old enterprise. As well as vast tracts of central London, The Crown Estate owns property all across the UK, from castles and cottages to agricultur­al land and forests plus retail parks and shopping centers. It owns more than half the UK's entire seashore, giving it hugely valuable auction rights for offshore commercial activity, such as wind farms.

Administer­ing real estate worth at least £14.1 billion (€16.4 billion, $17.8 billion), it is one of Europe's largest property groups. The question of who exactly owns the real estate empire is not a straightfo­rward one, though.

The Crown Estate's profits

"The Crown Estate belongs to the reigning monarch 'in right of the Crown,' that is, it is owned by the monarch for the duration of their reign, by virtue of their accession to the throne," the company explains on its website. "But it is not the private property of the monarch — it cannot be sold by the monarch, nor do revenues from it belong to the monarch."

It also makes clear that the British government also does not "own" The Crown Estate, which is registered as a corporatio­n sole and managed by an independen­t organizati­on. The royal family is not involved in its governance.

There is also a distinctio­n between the wealth of The Crown Estate and the queen's own personal wealth. For example, she is the owner of Balmoral and Sandringha­m Castles, which she inherited. According to the May 2021 edition of The Sunday Times Rich List, Queen Elizabeth II has a personal net worth of £365m. A whopping £100 million of that alone accounts for the queen's family's personal stamp collection, known as the Royal Philatelic Collection.

While The Crown Estate ownership question itself is not easily defined, it is clear that the business does well. In its most recent accounts for the financial year 2019/2020 (up until March 31, 2020), it reported record profits of £345 million. While results for 2020/21 have not been reported yet, it is clear that the pandemic has had an impact. Prolonged lockdowns meant several of The Crown Estate's commercial tenants owed it millions in rent.

However, there has been more good news than bad recently. An auction earlier this year for seabed rights for six new offshore wind farms could potentiall­y bring huge revenues. Several major oil consortium­s purchased option fees which when combined could mean up to £8.8 billion in revenues for The Crown Estate over the next decade.

The Crown Estate's profits are given every year to the British government, and the company says its clear purpose is "to create lasting and shared prosperity for the nation."

However, 25% of the profits are given back to the queen and the royal family as part of the Sovereign Grant, which is used to fund the royal family itself on an annual basis. For example, this year's figure of £85.9 million is 25% of The Crown Estate's profits in 2018/19. So that means the queen's own personal fortunes are directly connected to the performanc­e of The Crown Estate.

Conquest and colonialis­m

Laura Clancy is a lecturer at Lancaster University and is the author of the forthcomin­g book "Running the Family Firm: How the Monarchy Manages its Image and Our Money." She says The Crown Estate "reproduces their power" and argues that the royal family escapes appropriat­e scrutiny for its inherited wealth at a time of rising global inequality, particular­ly in the area of property ownership.

"There is a lot of talk generally about inequality, particular­ly around the elites and 'the 1%' and how much of global wealth they are taking," she told DW. "And often the monarchy is not part of that conversati­on. I think of them as 'The Firm,' I think of them as a corporatio­n."

Referring to The Crown Estate, she said: "When you look at the list of what they own, it's crazy. The amount of London that they own, the seabed and the foreshore, all these kind of things."

She also takes issue with the idea that there is a distinctio­n between the queen's personal wealth and then "The Crown's" wealth, given that much of the original ownership rights of the British monarchy date back to periods of conquest and colonialis­m.

King and kaiser

In the most recent YouGov opinion poll on support for the British monarchy, 61% of respondent­s said Britain should continue to have a monarchy, compared to just 24% in favor of an elected head of state. Support remains very strong.

However, should Britain ever move towards republican­ism, the question of who actually owns The Crown Estate may become a very thorny legal issue.

"There are no set rules on how to dismantle it," says Clancy. "I think the legal definition­s make it quite complicate­d. As The Crown is set up as a legal entity, what that all would mean in terms of it becoming public property is unclear."

There are precedents in Europe. When the German monarchy was dismantled after World War I, there was an initial agreement dividing their assets into public and private ownership. But after World War II, former royal possession­s located in East Germany were seized and nationaliz­ed by the new state.

Now, the House of Hohenzolle­rn is doggedly pursuing legal claims to many of its former riches, including castles, land, priceless artworks, crowns and jewelry.

The case hinges on legal and historical interpreta­tions as to the extent to which the House of Hohenzolle­rn, especially former Crown Prince Wilhelm, supported the Nazis. The German government was close to making an out-of-court settlement with the family, but the legal case will now be heard sometime in autumn 2021.

 ??  ?? The Crown Estate made €400 million profit in 2019/20
The Crown Estate made €400 million profit in 2019/20
 ??  ?? The Crown Estate owns practicall­y all of Regent Street in the West End of London
The Crown Estate owns practicall­y all of Regent Street in the West End of London

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