Prince William’s attempt to present the Duchy of Cornwall as a benevolent institution fails to impress Tom Scott, who brushed up against this powerful feudal relic after his neighbours died without leaving a will.
Last week, Prince William let it be known through “royal sources” quoted in the Daily Telegraph that he is looking into the possibility of using property on the Duchy of Cornwall estate as housing for the homeless. “The Duke is interested in finding ways to help alleviate the homelessness situation in any way he can,” said the source.
An admirable ambition, no doubt, and one that seems designed to speak to the acute housing crisis in Cornwall and beyond.
The Duchy certainly has no shortage of properties, ranging from historic mansions to farms to whole towns in Cornwall and Dorset. All in all, it controls 130,000 acres of land, including 160 miles of coastline, in 23 counties of England and Wales. The total value of the property it owns stood at £901,586,000 last year. And a more than usually high proportion of these properties currently stand empty as a result of the pandemic.
In its 2020 annual report, the Duchy expressed some concern about this:
“Property voids (periods when assets are empty with no rental income) may well increase in both number and length. With the property market currently stalled, our ability to raise capital through property sales will be restricted.”
As the report notes,
“The area where the Duchy estate’s land is predominantly situated has more than its share of local authority districts with high house prices relative to earnings.” It also claims that: “We have always responded to local community need for homes by making land available and we will continue to do so. We believe we have a robust consultation process and will continue to work to meet market demand and government policy. To date, 2,190 homes have been built at Poundbury and Nansledan, as well as at other smaller sites.”
Nansledan is the new model town near Newquay, built to Prince Charles’s exacting specifications on Duchy land. Some 30 per cent of the homes that have been created there are classed as “affordable” under the current definition of “affordability”, although this still puts them well out of reach of most local people in Cornwall.
The feudal estate that is the Duchy was created by Edward III in 1337 to provide an income for the heir to the throne, which is what William will become on the death of the Queen, when the title of Duke of Cornwall will transfer from Charles to his eldest son. William will then be entitled to the full annual net revenue surplus of the Duchy. In 2020, this amounted to just under £22 million.
Prior to announcing his intention to use Duchy properties to help the homeless, William has indicated that he intends to see the wealth-generating estate managed in much the same way as under his father. In the 2019 ITV special Prince Charles: Inside The Duchy of Cornwall, William remarked to an audience of local farmers:
“I’ve started to think about how I will inherit the Duchy one day. Well, rest assured I’m not going to rock the boat; I’ll do much the same as what my father’s doing. I’m not so into the architecture – that’s the only thing.”
One curious feature of the Duchy is the right that it confers on the Duke of Cornwall to take possession of any property or other assets belonging to people in Cornwall who die intestate (without leaving a will). This system is known as bona vacantia (vacant goods), and I have some personal experience of the way this feudal arrangement works.
When our elderly and childless next-door neighbours in Falmouth died a while back, no will could be found. Their house, which was already in poor repair, then stood empty for some three years.
The garden next door became an impenetrable thicket of Sleeping Beauty briars, window frames rotted and large numbers of roof tiles blew off in a storm. This allowed seagulls to gain access to the upper floor, where they took up noisy residence. Bits of the house fell off into our garden and large damp patches emerged on our side of the party wall, through which the unmistakable scent of dry rot also began to permeate.
This was not, from our point of view, a healthy situation, and we became increasingly anxious that something should be done about it. But our calls to the Duchy – which we were told had taken possession – yielded no joy. The Duchy staff we were finally able to speak with seemed to have no interest in the upkeep of the property and could give us no information on how it might eventually be disposed of.
Thankfully, fate – or at least the clear-out of a local solicitor’s office – intervened. At the back of a dusty safe, an ancient will was found, bequeathing the property to a distant relative. Having no interest in taking on a rotting property hundreds of miles from her home, this relative quickly sold the house to a local couple who have spent the past few years lovingly restoring it and are now the best of neighbours.
The money that flows into the Duchy’s coffers from the bona vacantia system is supposedly put towards charitable causes through the Duke of Cornwall’s Benevolent Fund. According to the Duchy, “over the last seven years this has donated over £850,000 to a wide range of organisations” that “support environmental, conservation, wildlife and community projects, as well as the advancement of art, religion and education”.
Details of exactly how this bounty is dispersed are somewhat hard to find – the Duchy’s website gives a link to “full guidance on discretionary payments”, but the page it links to merely has a message to say “this page cannot be found”. It is known, however, that at least some of this money in the past has gone towards paying for scholarships to Gordonstoun, the private school in Scotland where some of Charles’s formative years were spent.
Our own experience of the Duchy’s benevolence, together with the start of the pandemic in 2020, spurred me and my wife into making wills of our own. I was tempted to put in an instruction that my ashes should be scattered over Boris Johnson and members of his cabinet, but was persuaded that this might be asking too much of my heirs.
But it does give me some comfort to know that whatever goods and chattels I leave will not be heading in the direction of the House of Windsor, however well-intentioned the future Duke of Cornwall may appear.