Smoke has cleared but debate rages over paying Windsor bill

November 24, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- The fire is out in Windsor Castle, but the effects of it still smolder as the public and politicians divide over who is going to pay to have the royal fortress restored.

Peter Brooke, the heritage secretary, threw more fuel on the controversy when he repeated yesterday before the House of Commons that the government would pick up the cost of restoration.

"Windsor Castle is the property of the state, and it is the government's responsibility to ensure that resources are provided to maintain it in a manner commensurate with its status," he told the chamber.

Even while the fire was still blazing over the weekend, and before any estimate of the damage could be made, Mr. Brooke promised that the taxpayer would pick up the bill, which -- according to unofficial estimates -- might go as high as $100 million.

Some felt that Mr. Brooke's commitment, made on behalf of a people wracked and drained by three years of recession, was precipitous. (When he was Northern Ireland secretary, detractors referred to him as "Babbling" Brooke.)

Equally precipitous was the outcry by Bob Cryer, a Labor member of Parliament, who said flatly that the queen, being one of the richest women in the world, and untaxed to boot, should pay.

Others since then have suggested the queen should at least make a contribution, among them Alan Williams, a Conservative member of Parliament.

And Ann Clwyd, a Labor member of Parliament, said last night in response to Mr. Brooke's statement, "There is legitimate public concern that the total cost of repair should not be paid exclusively by the taxpayer."

She asked Mr. Brooke if he would welcome a contribution from the royal family, if offered.

An offer doesn't seem likely. Buckingham Palace's position is that a contribution from the queen is not being considered, since Mr. Brooke has already volunteered state funds.

The public -- if radio talk shows are any gauge of its sentiment -- is not amused by Mr. Brooke's quick generosity. Over the weekend some 90 percent of the callers to a London Broadcasting Corp. talk show said the taxpayer should not foot the bill.

Thus, the queen finds herself at the center of another controversy, perhaps one a little more serious than those growing out of the low morality plays in which her children and their spouses frequently star.

The question of who should pay to restore Windsor Castle -- one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country and one of several residences of the queen -- will surely not tear the United Kingdom apart; there are more important things to worry about. But there is no doubt it will do little to hoist the monarchy's sagging esteem, unless the palace's current position is softened.

One fact that emerged after the fire is likely to stimulate animosity toward the royal family. It was the palace's refusal before the fire to allow agents for British Heritage, the agency in charge of the country's historic buildings, to carry out archaeological or survey work at the castle or to inspect electrical work being done there.

The electrical work was in the part of the castle where the fire broke out -- accidentally, it is believed.

In response to British Heritage's request to do the survey, a palace spokesman said, "Why should they think they should have access? [British Heritage] is not regarded as having any responsibility for the fabric or what the buildings contain -- it is the responsibility of the royal household."

Now that the palace has agreed to allow British Heritage to sift through the rubble, there is no record of what might have been lost, architecturally or archaeologically. Losses of the building's contents from the fire were only one painting, one sideboard and one antique rug.

Fires and other disasters often have their silver linings. Such was the case of St. Bride's Church in Fleet Street. The church, designed by Christopher Wren and regarded as a small masterpiece, was hit by a German bomb in 1940. The damage revealed a length of second-century Roman pavement, which greatly enhanced the church's historic value.

For some, the palace's refusal to let British Heritage in before the fire reflected a proprietariness that hardly squares with the royal family's current position that the castle belongs to the state and that its repair is therefore the responsibility of the state.

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