2021-02-09 15:00:09 | Prince Charles vetted laws that stop his tenants buying their homes | UK news


Story by: Rob Evans, David Pegg and Michael Barton The Guardian

The royal family has used a secretive procedure to vet three parliamentary acts that have prevented residents on Prince Charles’ estate from buying their own homes for decades, the Guardian can reveal.

His £1bn Duchy of Cornwall estate was later given special exemptions in the acts that denied residents the legal right to buy their own homes outright.

Under the opaque procedure, the Queen and Prince of Wales were allowed to vet the contents of the bills by government ministers and approve them before they were passed by parliament.

The exemptions have left residents living in homes that have diminishing or no financial value. The residents say they cannot borrow against their homes to pay, for example, for social care fees for themselves and loved ones.

Jane Giddins outside her home in Newton St Loe

Jane Giddins outside her home in Newton St Loe, Somerset. She is denied the legal right to buy the freehold because of an exemption granted to Prince Charles. Photograph: Sam Frost/The Guardian

Jane Giddins, who lives in one of the prince’s houses in a Somerset village, said a “feudal and anachronistic” system had unfairly favoured Charles, to her family’s detriment. “When we die, our kids will be left with a property that is very difficult to sell,” she said.

The exemptions enable the prince to preserve the financial value of his estate and brings in income as the tenants have to pay rent to him each year. The residents say they have been unable to find out why and how the heir to the throne was able to secure preferential treatment from the government.

The prince declined to comment when asked whether he or his family had lobbied the government for the exemptions in the three acts.

However, the Guardian has established that Prince Charles and his mother were allowed to approve the contents of the three acts under an arcane parliamentary process known as Queen’s consent.

Through this mechanism, the monarch has vetted more than 1,000 parliamentary bills during her reign to check whether any of them affect the crown or her private interests.

Queen’s consent is a little-known procedure whereby the government asks the monarch’s permission for parliament to be able to debate laws that affect her. Unlike royal assent, which is a formality that takes place at the end of the process of drafting a bill, Queen’s consent takes place before parliament is permitted to debate the legislation.

Consent has to be sought for any legislation affecting either the royal prerogative – fundamental powers of state, such as the ability to declare war – or the assets of the crown, such as the royal palaces. Buckingham Palace says the procedure also covers assets that the monarch owns privately, such as the estates of Sandringham and Balmoral.

If parliamentary lawyers decide that a bill requires consent, a government minister writes to the Queen formally requesting her permission for parliament to debate it. A copy of the bill is sent to the Queen’s private lawyers, who have 14 days to consider it and to advise her.

If the Queen grants her consent, parliament can debate the legislation and the process is formally signified in Hansard, the record of parliamentary debates. If the Queen withholds consent, the bill cannot proceed and parliament is in effect banned from debating it. 

The royal household claims consent has only ever been withheld on the advice of government ministers.

Previously secret documents have disclosed that the Queen used the procedure to secretly lobby for some laws to be altered to benefit her private interests or reflect her opinions on government policy.

The same procedure allows Charles to screen proposed laws in case they damage his property estate, the Duchy of Cornwall, which gives him a private income of around £22m a year.

In total, at least 275 draft laws have been vetted by the prince between 1970 and 2020 under this procedure. They include a wide range of laws from the ban on foxhunting to changes in inheritance laws. The prince declined to say how often he had asked for changes in proposed bills through the mechanism.

By tradition, Charles, as the heir to the throne, is paid out of the profits made by his estate. Created in 1337, the 52,000-hectare (128,000-acre) estate extends across 23 counties in England and Wales. As well as large parts of Cornwall, it owns the Oval cricket ground in London, most of Dartmoor and land in Gloucestershire, Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset.

Case 1: leasehold reform

The first parliamentary act that gave him exemptions preventing his tenants from buying their homes was the 1967 Leasehold Reform Act.

The act sought to reform the leasehold law under which landlords grant buyers the right to live in a property for a set number of years on a lease, instead of owning it outright. It gave people in specific circumstances the right to buy their homes compulsorily from their landlords.

But residents on the Duchy of Cornwall estate were barred from buying their homes in specific circumstances – for example, if the properties were deemed to have important architectural or historic features.

Files in the National Archives show that the Queen was asked by a Whitehall official in February 1967 to vet the bill before MPs had begun to debate its contents.

Martin Charteris, a senior courtier, said he had “laid the letter before the Queen” and she had approved. The duchy was at that time under the control of the Queen. Charles took over the estate two years later when he turned 21.

Case 2: Scilly

The second act was the 1993 Leasehold Reform, Housing and Urban Development Act. The exemptions were altered to include specific properties within the Duchy of Cornwall that were in the Isles of Scilly and Dartmoor.

The number of tenants on Scilly caught by the exemption is not known but has been estimated at 100.

One of them is a 78-year-old retired oil executive, Alan Davis. He has been prevented from buying the freehold to his 1960s bungalow.

He compared their plight with the millions of Britons who own their own home – the freehold – outright and can therefore pass it on as a valuable asset to their children.

In 1984 he bought the right to live in his bungalow for 99 years. He fears he has invested in an asset that will become worthless. “The problem comes when you want to sell it. If the lease is down to something like 30-odd years, people will just shy away from it.”

He said it was an “absolute nonsense” that he and other residents on the islands were unable to buy their homes from the duchy, attributing it to the prince’s influence within government.

The government defeated Davis’s attempt under freedom of information legislation to try to discover whether Prince Charles had privately lobbied government ministers to secure the exemption.

In a statement, the duchy of Cornwall said: “Neither the Duke of Cornwall nor the Duchy of Cornwall council have any involvement in the drafting of legislation that relates to any part of leasehold reform including residential enfranchisement.”

“The duchy does, however, take great care to ensure that anyone purchasing a property where the freehold belongs to the duchy is made completely aware of the restrictions that may apply to their property as a result of the legislation.

“The value of any leasehold property will reduce as the length of the lease attached to it reduces. Any purchaser is made fully aware of this at the point of purchase.”

Case 3: Somerset

The third bill vetted by Charles was the 2002 Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act, when the exemptions were again altered, this time to include houses in the tiny village of Newton St Loe near Bath, Somerset.

Giddins is one of three tenants in the village who are not permitted to buy their homes from the duchy of Cornwall.

She and her husband bought the derelict Georgian house in 1996. “We have spent 25 years pouring a lot of money and love into renovating it.” But she said they will not be able to get that money back.

“The question is: why should the crown be allowed to carry on with a feudal system just because they want to?”

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Source References: The Guardian
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