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If you’re like many Ricochet folks, you get “The Daily Shot” in your inbox every day. (No, I’m not going to scold you if you don’t.)
Wednesday morning’s edition caught my eye because of some talk about Queen Elizabeth II getting a pay raise. As Americans, we’ve occasionally made comparisons between the Royal Family’s expenditures versus our own First Family. This was a relative sport for some, until earlier this year.
In both the US and the UK, the citizens bear the bill for their respective “families,” but across the pond, that isn’t as direct as it is here. The esteemed writer and editor of the daily newsletter did a fine job of explaining that:
Then there’s also something called the Crown Estate. That’s a corporation sole (basically a one-person corporation) belonging to whomever is on the throne. It owns a lot of stuff: property holdings, including in central London, two million acres of land, various traditional holdings and rights, a park, a racecourse, as well as gold and silver mines.
All that is worth $15.8 billion, but it doesn’t belong to her personal estate, nor does she control how it’s managed, and she can’t sell it off. It’s the sovereign’s public estate. Revenue from those holdings go right into the UK treasury for the benefit of the nation. That’s where the cash we’re talking about comes from. Since 2011, the Queen gets the Sovereign Grant based on the profits of the Crown Estate.
So, in short: No, Queen Elizabeth is not a billionaire. But, yes, she is a shapeshifting space lizard.
Now, I can’t speak on the lizard part, but what definitely caught my attention was the concept of having an estate that earns the cost of upkeep for the Royal Family. Obviously, the citizens of the UK don’t have much of a problem with seeing their royals live in the lap of luxury at least in part because they really aren’t paying for it directly through taxation.
Here in the US, we’ve had issues with the concept of government lands, even to the point of armed standoffs. We also have a horrible habit of allowing government to claim land with the specific purpose of doing absolutely nothing with it at all. Southeast of where I am in western Pennsylvania, the state of Maryland has turned this into a regular practice, funded by a tax on the transfer of real estate.
Yes, Maryland residents pay a tax on property transfers that gives their state government funding to buy property so no one else can have it. Apparently this includes “saving” acreage from being developed, presumably because someone in government doesn’t want anyone living near them. That brings “not in my backyard” to a level that even the master George Carlin himself probably couldn’t foresee.
This scheme is called Program Open Space, and some of the details they offer in their overview are absolutely priceless! I suppose they would have to be, in order to convince the citizens that government is the best entity to have control over hundreds of thousands of acres in their very small state.
As the site explains:
Program Open Space has…
- Protected 380,000* acres of land
- Awarded more than 5,800 grants to local governments through Program Open Space Local
- Enhanced quality of communities
- Established Greenways and Green Infrastructure network
- Provided state and local park or public open space areas within 15 minutes of most residents
*Acreage includes Program Open Space Stateside, Program Open Space Local, and Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program permanent easements as of September 1, 2015. Updated acreage by program is available at Maryland’s Conservation Lands Reporting Site.
In case you’re wondering, no they don’t link directly to that mystical “Conservation Lands Reporting Site” on this overview. Who can blame them? Someone might actually click on it, and figure out that “Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program permanent easements” really often means “lands that your state holds and forbids anyone from even setting foot on, ever.” As a yearly traveler to the beach in Maryland, I already noticed that there were wide swathes of lands that never seemed to change — no new development. I wondered about it, and recently found out the reason why what many would consider prime real estate for even limited residential and commercial development was untouched for years. Those lands are part of the state’s reserves.
Maryland was actually rather brilliant in their sale of this idea to their residents:
What are the economic benefits of open space
- Program Open Space is good for business and for the overall quality of life in Maryland and its attractive residential communities.
- Home values tend to increase faster around parks and protected open space than comparable homes in other settings.
- New businesses prefer to locate in communities with parks and quality environments.
- Tourism is one of Maryland’s top industries. Historical structures, landscapes, parks and forests supported by Program Open Space are essential to the continued growth of this sector of Maryland’s economy.
- The Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress reported that a city’s quality of life is “more important than purely business-related factors” when it comes to attracting new businesses.
- Businesses which move to an area because of tax incentives tend to leave as soon as the incentives expire. Businesses drawn to an area because of its quality of life remain long term residents and taxpayers.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Remember, Maryland is not a big state, has limited land to begin with, so if the state is buying up real estate all the time to prevent people from developing it, there eventually won’t be anywhere for new businesses to move in anyway.
Now, if instead of just sitting on all of that property, and Maryland took a page from the UK, the residents of that state might actually benefit from the state (temporarily) claiming all that land. Sure, the government would reserve some of the ridiculous amount of acreage it already owns, but why not sell some at a profit? It’s logical, so no one is really expecting Maryland to do that.
And Maryland is just an example of the federal government in miniature. Of course, the President has already talked about reviewing the property holdings of the government, and it’s safe to assume that there will be some “for sale” signs going up on current federal properties in the relatively near future. Since real estate is Trump’s wheelhouse, we can hope that will end well for all concerned, at least when it comes to making sure lands aren’t undervalued in the process. But, maybe we need to think about making our real assets as a nation work for us, like the royals do in the UK.
Making the most of real estate value is something the British have definitely figured out, since they’ve been doing it for centuries. Maybe it’s time to import that skill to America. Just something to think about, since it’s very unlikely that we will get the government out of the business of owning a lot of real estate right away, even if that does remain the goal.