Buckingham Palace to get a ten-year £369m refurb

Phased programme to bring London's biggest private house up to scratch

Buckingham Palace will undergo a ten-year overhaul – starting next April – to bring it mostly up to modern scratch, with new electrics, plumbing and heating to the tune of £369m.

Aerial view of Buckingham Palace by Brendan and Ruth McCartney (cc by SA 2.0)
Aerial view of Buckingham Palace by Brendan and Ruth McCartney (cc by SA 2.0)

A series of detailed technical assessments have been undertaken over the last couple of years (by Sir Robert McAlpine, among others) to get a grip on just what needs doing to the building. It turns out that a lot of the electrical cabling, power generation, heating systems and pipework, hot and cold water pipework and data systems “are significantly beyond their maximum useful life and require urgent replacement”. It’s estimated that 6,500 plug sockets, 500 pieces of sanitary ware (toilet, basins and the like) and 20 miles of skirting board will be replaced by the time works end in 2026/7.

A range of refurb options were put to the Treasury and Royal Household, ranging from “full decant” which would see the Queen and family leave home for six-and-a-half years, to a “full occupation” approach over 21 years, which would work around the Royals in residence. Costs for these options ranged from £313m to 390m.

After a pretty in-depth analysis of these options, a middle way has now been given the go-ahead: essential works will take place over the next decade at an estimated capital cost of £369m (£222m net present cost after benefits over 50 years), with the refurb working its way around the Palace, wing by wing, in a phased schedule shuffling residents, events and visitors around to get things done with as little disruption to the Palaces operational and residential functions as possible. Significant national events, such as the Changing of the Guard, the State Opening of Parliament, the Trooping of the Colour, Investitures, garden parties and the opening of the Palace to visitors during the summer months will also continue throughout the reservicing period.

The project seeks to prevent a serious risk of fire, flood and damage to both the building and the priceless Royal Collection of art belonging to the nation with a brief to “ensure that the Palace is fit for purpose for the next 50 years and the next three generations of the Monarchy.” You may remember that Windsor Castle suffered a fire in 1992, which raged for nine hours and caused devastation to large parts of the building. The restoration took more than five years, and it is estimated that similar damage to Buckingham Palace could cost up to £250m for a single wing.

The overhaul will also help to improve energy and cost efficiency, and significantly improve visitor access. On the sustainability front, it’s estimated that High Priority works will deliver a 30% CO2 efficiency (a saving of 410 carbon tons) with the reservicing works likely to release a further 10% saving (totalling 554 carbon tons overall).

“Urgent” works will be tackled in the first two years of the refurb, with a focus on “fragile systems with a high risk of failure”, including Vulcanised India Rubber electrical cabling, electrical panels, distribution boards, generators, 33-year-old boilers, lead and cast iron pipework and data systems (fire alarms, telephones and IT).

After two years patching up the really worrying bits, the programme will start in earnest in April 2019, starting with the East Wing and rotating clockwise around the Palace to the South, South West and North Wings. The West Wing and State Apartments will be progressed incrementally throughout the decade-long programme (two to three State Rooms at a time), so as to enable the Palace to open to over 500,000 visitors over the summer months as usual.

The latest Condition Assessment survey of the Occupied Royal Palaces Estate (Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace, Clarence House, Marlborough House Mews, the residential and office areas of Kensington Palace, the Royal Mews and Royal Paddocks at Hampton Court, Windsor Castle and buildings in the Home Park at Windsor) highlighted that 45% of the mostly Grade I listed Estate was “below target condition”, which is an increase of 6% since the previous survey at 31 March 2012 (39%). By the end of Buckingham Palace’s ten-year restoration, the plan is that the percentage of the Estate below target condition will have reduced from 45% to 25-30%.

Works will be funded through a temporary increase in the Sovereign Grant from 15% to 25% of the Crown Estate’s profits until works are completed in (hopefully) 2026/7. The Sovereign Grant is calculated as a percentage of the Crown Estate’s profits, which are paid to the Treasury every year. In 2015-16, £304.1m was paid to the Treasury. Parliament will hold the Royal Household to account throughout the process to ensure maximum value for taxpayers’ money.

A dedicated Project Management Office has been set up to run the show; no word yet on who the suppliers will be, but there are 119 building and maintenance firms with Royal Warrants already on display (see them all here).

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The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, David Gauke: “Tourists are drawn to this country because of our culture, heritage and royal legacy, and when they visit they spend billions of pounds and support thousands of jobs.

“We must ensure that the special architectural and historic nature of some of our greatest buildings are protected for future generations, therefore it is only right we ensure Buckingham Palace is fit for purpose.

“These urgent works have been properly costed and will ensure the Palace can continue its centuries-long tradition of being the working house of our Monarch. We will ensure every penny spent achieves the greatest value for money.”

Sir Alan Reid, Keeper of the Privy Purse: “I am grateful to my fellow Trustees for conducting this first joint review of the new Sovereign Grant arrangements. I welcome the government’s commitment, through the Sovereign Grant, to provide additional resources for the reservicing of Buckingham Palace.

“The Occupied Royal Palaces are a vital part of our shared national heritage, and this investment will help preserve a landmark building for future generations. We firmly believe that our chosen option for delivering the programme offers the best value for money and reduces the risk of a more costly, catastrophic building failure in the years to come.”