There is a great deal of confusion in the media, and in public perceptions, about what property belongs to the Queen and what belongs to the taxpayer. The royal rule of thumb is simple: it's theirs when they want to use it, it's ours when someone has to pay for it.
As with many issues related to the monarchy, the line between public and private ownership is often deliberately blurred. The media also routinely confuse the difference between properties belonging to the Windsor family, those belonging to the nation and those which belong to the Crown Estates.
The occupied royal residences are owned by the state and 'held in trust' by the Queen. They are maintained by the Royal Household's property services and paid for by the Government through an annual grant from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. These properties belong to us, the British people - not the royals.
The whole estate encompasses about 360 buildings including Windsor Castle, Clarence House, St James Palace and parts of Kensington Palace. Many of these properties are occupied on a 'grace and favour' basis by the Queen's private secretaries and other staff. This means that the Queen is able to offer publicly owned property at knock-down prices to her friends, family and former employees. The exact policy on which royal household staff are expected to pay rent is unknown, but investigations by the Public Accounts Committee suggest it is at the Queen's discretion.
Many of the most famous unoccupied royal residences, including the Tower of London and Hampton Court, are maintained by Historic Royal Palaces, a registered charity which receives no government funding. Others such as Osborne House and Audley End are maintained by English Heritage. These buildings are also national property but are run solely as heritage sites, museums and galleries. They are open to visitors all year round and pay for their own upkeep through entrance fees and fundraising activities.
Others properties - such as Balmoral Castle and Sandringham House - have been inherited as the private property of the royal family for several generations. The family privately own many grand homes and vast swathes of land across the country.
The Crown Estate is essentially a nationalised property management company, governed by the Crown Estates Act. It does not include royal palaces and it is not the personal property of the Queen, despite what the press may sometimes imply.
Crown Estate land is officially owned by the Sovereign of the United Kingdom "in right of the Crown" (in other words, the Queen nominally owns it only for as long as she is the Queen).
There is a misunderstanding about the Crown Estates. Often monarchists claim the royal family selflessly 'surrendered' this property in return for the Civil List (money paid to the Queen each year by the government). But the Crown Estate property is not the personal property of the Queen and would not become her personal property in a republic.
The Crown Estates have always been there to provide an income for the government so it can run the Civil Service, judiciary and so on. A long time ago the monarchy was the government. It was the institution of the monarchy that surrendered the property, not the family that happened to occupy the palace at the time - it was simply a reflection of the fact that the business of government had moved from the palace to parliament.
If you think that the royals have a claim to the Crown Estate land if we were to abolish the monarchy and scrap the civil list, remember that part of the deal was that parliament assumed responsibility for paying for the Civil Service, judiciary and other costs of the state. If the royals were to reverse the deal they would find themselves out of pocket to the tune of hundreds of billions of pounds.
What about the "crumbling palaces"?
It is well known that many of the occupied royal residences - most famously Buckingham Palace - are in a critical state of disrepair. This is largely because the royal household is unwilling to finance itself by extending access to tourists.
When questioned by members of the Public Accounts Committee about the royals' resistance to extending access, Sir Alan Reid (Keeper of the Privy Purse) claimed that it would be too difficult to find the staff needed to open the Palace to tourists all year round. Reid also suggested it would be inappropriate for the public to be allowed access when members of the royal family may be in residence.
In response, MPs rightly asked how the White House was able to open all year round. Conservative MP Richard Bacon said:
"I am sure you would find people who could work throughout the year. The White House in Washington DC has visitors throughout the year ... they have a lot of official state engagements going on throughout the year, official visitors, there is a very high security issue and yet they still manage to be open for much longer. I just find it difficult to be persuaded that you have done all that you could do."
Or, as Edward Leigh MP put it, "you cannot close the entire Palace because the Duke of York is sitting in his flat upstairs."
Republic believes that the occupied royal residences are an important part of our political and architectural heritage. They belong to us, the British people, and it is shameful that they may be allowed to fall into decay due to the stubbornness of the royals.
In a republic
In a republic, responsibility for maintaining the palaces would be transferred to Historic Royal Palaces or English Heritage, whose track record of running such properties is exemplary. Until that time, we are calling on the government to take full control of the royal palaces and turn them around so they can make a profit.