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‘It’s not a good look.’ As cost of living crisis bites, some Brits are questioning spending money on glitzy coronation

<i>Ivana Kottasova/CNN</i><br/>James Woods is the chief executive officer of Citizens Advice Doncaster Borough.
Ivana Kottasova/CNN
James Woods is the chief executive officer of Citizens Advice Doncaster Borough.

By Ivana Kottasová, CNN

The first time Angela Davis went to a food bank was mortifying. The single mother of five — with three kids still living at home — had realized that after paying her bills, she simply had no money left to buy food.

“It felt degrading. I was a bit down about it,” she told CNN over a cup of tea and biscuit served at the community cafe at St. John the Evangelist Church in Doncaster. The church operates the cafe alongside a food bank which offers free food, clothes, household items and other necessities to locals who are struggling.

Davis lined up early, arriving two hours before the church doors opened. The wait paid off. Apart from essentials like bread and vegetables, she got a bouquet of flowers donated by a supermarket. “I’ll put the lilies in my vase and the rest on my mother’s grave,” she said.

When it first opened before the pandemic, the food bank was serving mostly homeless people. These days, many of those coming through the door are people working full time.

“They are using all of their wages to pay the bills and they’ve got no money left for food. It’s really sad that it’s got to the point where someone is working full time and not making enough money to cover basic human necessities,” Andy Unsworth, a minister at the church who manages the Given Freely Freely Given food bank, told CNN.

Doncaster is among the United Kingdom’s more economically deprived areas, but it’s not unique. Like many parts of northern England, the South Yorkshire city of just over 300,000 people has never quite recovered from the industrial decline and mine closures of the 1980s and 90s. Already struggling, the region has been hit hard by the severe cost of living crisis that is now impacting the whole of the UK.

Stubbornly high inflation, years of wage stagnation and the sudden and steep rise in energy prices have left millions of Brits on the brink of poverty.

Yet at the same time, the UK government is getting ready to spend tens of millions of taxpayers’ money on a glitzy event celebrating one very, very rich man: King Charles III.

The King’s coronation this Saturday will showcase some of the enormous wealth accumulated by the British monarchy over the centuries. There will be golden carriages and priceless jewels and custom-made designer outfits that cost more than most people make in months.

The government has refused to put a figure on the cost of the coronation, with estimates by British media ranging from £50 million to more than £100 million ($63 million to $125 million).

It’s a figure many are finding hard to swallow in Doncaster.

“I am a bit of a royalist and I do like the royal family. But I think they haven’t really read the room as it were. A lot of it should have come from their own pocket rather than the taxpayer. And I think it should have been toned down a little bit,” said Laura Billington, a teacher at a school in the city.

She has seen the impact the cost of living crisis has had on her students. Many are turning up to school without the most basic equipment, such as pens and pencils. She’s also noticed more problems with behavior and concentration.

“I’ve never known students being this apathetic towards learning — whether that is due to them being tired or being hungry because they’re only getting a meal at school and that is literally all they will eat today,” she said.

Billington is also feeling the pinch. Her bills have gone up and her salary has not risen in line with inflation, making her significantly worse off in real terms. She’s not alone. Across Great Britain, real wages including bonuses fell 3% in the three months to February, according to the Office for National Statistics. That’s one of the largest falls since records began in 2001.

Billington is a labor union representative at her school and like hundreds of thousands of her colleagues, she has gone on strike over pay in recent months. She said that stretched school budgets mean teachers are facing increasingly unmanageable workloads.

She is working full time, spending 22 hours a week in the classroom. She is given just under three hours a week for preparation, planning and assessment, which she said isn’t enough. Because of the rest of her workload — meetings, tutor time, after-school duties and so on — she ends up bringing the bulk of her preparation work home. She estimates this extra — unpaid — work adds up to roughly 15 hours a week. This past Sunday, she was going to spend most of the day marking history assessments. Billington is a French teacher. She only teaches history because there’s a staff shortage.

“All I’ve ever wanted to do is be a teacher. But it wasn’t for my students, I think I would have probably jacked in teaching quite a while ago,” she said.

The UK has been hit by a large wave of strikes in recent months, with nurses, junior doctors, midwifes, healthcare workers, university staff, train drivers and civil servants — including staff checking passports at airports — all walking out over pay disputes.

Most public sector workers have been offered raises of 4% or 5% for the current financial year, which is significantly lower than the annual inflation rate which has been above 10% for seven consecutive months. Food prices are rising at a particularly painful pace: the cost of bread was up 19.4% year on year in March.

The wealth of monarchy

The King’s enormous private wealth and lavish lifestyle stand in stark contrast to the realities most people in the UK are currently living.

Buckingham Palace refuses to comment on the royal family’s financial situation, arguing they have the right to privacy. The Guardian newspaper recently estimated Charles’ private wealth to be more than £1.8 billion — although the Palace told the newspaper that figure was “a highly creative mix of speculation, assumption and inaccuracy.”

Forbes estimated last year that the personal fortune of the late Queen Elizabeth II was worth $500 million, which included her jewels, art collection, investments and two residences, Balmoral Castle in Scotland and Sandringham House in the English county of Norfolk. The Queen inherited both properties from her father, King George VI and passed them onto Charles.

That’s where the biggest financial advantage of being the monarch kicked in. The King is exempt from paying taxes and while he chooses to pay income tax voluntarily, he did not have to pay any inheritance tax — normally set at 40% — on what his mother left him. That saved him tens of millions of pounds that would otherwise go to the UK Treasury.

Craig Prescott, a UK constitutional law expert and a Bangor University lecturer, told CNN the inheritance tax exemption boils down to the desire to keep the monarchy independent.

“In theory, the monarchy has constitutional powers. In the most extreme scenario, you don’t necessarily want a prime minister to say ‘you must grant royal assent to this enormously controversial and democratically subversive piece of legislation, or I’m going to cut your funding,'” he said.

“Keeping the assets in the direct line of succession ensures that the monarchy does have some independence from the government of the day.”

While the Queen was enormously wealthy, she had a reputation for being relatively frugal. British media would often reference rumors that she used Tupperware to store her breakfast cereals and never threw out anything that was still good enough to use.

“She wasn’t, in relative terms, all that interested in ostentatious displays of wealth. In her own private capacity, personally, she did live a life of restraint,” Prescott told CNN. “Inevitably, I think, the King doesn’t have quite that same image. Whether you could describe him as being frugal or restrained, I’m not quite sure,” he added.

Worse than ever

Doncaster was one of the first places Charles visited after becoming the King. He took a helicopter there to mark it being officially declared a city in November.

He was welcomed with the usual pomp — even as many of Doncaster’s residents were hitting rock bottom.

“It’s worse than it’s ever been,” said Kelly Widdowson, the manager at Helping Hands Community Centre in Edlington on the outskirts of the city.

Like the food bank at St. John the Evangelist, this community center has seen an influx of new clients who are struggling to make ends meet despite working full time. The center provides low-cost meals and food parcels, financial advice, after-school programs and a range of other services.

“The price of gas and electric has gone through the roof, the price of food has gone through the roof,” Widdowson told CNN. “Both me and my husband work full time and we are struggling. We can’t afford to live. I’ve got three kids in junior school. That’s three times £2.50 a day for school dinner,” she said.

James Woods, the chief executive of Citizens Advice Doncaster Borough, said the biggest misconception of the current crisis is the idea that it’s only the people at the bottom of socio-economic chain that are struggling.

“We’ve seen a great influx of people contacting us from within the more affluent areas in Doncaster, people that in the past haven’t had to face these problems. A greater number of people are suffering from in-work poverty,” he said.

As the head of an impartial charitable group, Woods stressed he was not expressing any view on the monarch or the cost of the coronation.

Woods said most people who come to the Citizens Advice office are struggling with debt and energy bills or need help navigating the overcomplicated system of welfare benefits.

“The worrying thing, and you see this quite a lot, is that people are scared to put the heating on. To me, it’s not right. In what is thought of as quite an affluent country, you shouldn’t be in a situation where you feel like you can’t put your heating on in the winter months,” he told CNN.

Davis said her gas and electricity bill is now three times as high as it was last year — and that’s after she’s cut down on electricity use by regularly switching the heating off.

“The winter was really cold. I was always in my dressing gown. I have slippers with fur in them and I always wore an extra pair of socks, but it was really cold,” she said. Her arthritis got worse because of the cold environment, her hands and fingers getting stiff and her knuckles swollen.

Widdowson questioned whether the government understands just how bad the situation is on the ground.

“They don’t live this life where you’re having to struggle, where you’re having to wash your kids’ hair with a bar of soap because you can’t afford the shampoo, where you buy a bag of potatoes and a box of eggs to try to last you a week so you have a jacket potato one day and then chips the next day and then roast potatoes the next because your household is living off a sack of potatoes,” she said.

“We had a gentleman that came in and he was eating dog food because it was cheaper. He wanted to feed the dog and instead of buying human food and giving it to the dog, he was buying dog food to make sure the dog was catered for and then just eating the dog food with the dog.”

Widdowson’s colleague, Peter Davey, said that the longer the cost of living crisis has been going on, the more complex the problems people are facing and the higher the toll on their mental health — something the country’s overstretched public health system, the NHS, isn’t equipped to deal with.

“If somebody is unemployed or low income, they have no money, they’re going to struggle one way or the other. They can’t afford to pay the bills, they are going to worry, next anxiety kicks in and they get depressed, they end up on medication waiting months for therapy,” he said.

Decades of insufficient funding and chronic staff shortages mean the already long waiting times for essential health care appointments have ballooned over the pandemic.

The community center has put in new counseling services as well as a support group for a growing number of survivors of intimate partner violence and abuse. At the Citizens Advice office, the staff have done suicide awareness training after more and more clients started showing signs of being at risk, Woods said.

Royal riches

Royal fans often argue the monarchy offers good value to British taxpayers because it boosts tourism and consumer spending, particularly during big events. But with three huge royal events — the Platinum Jubilee, the Queen’s funeral and the Coronation — taking place in less than a year, the bills are adding up.

With large parts of the country suffering, many are now questioning whether it’s appropriate to hold yet another publicly-funded royal spectacle — especially since the UK is the only European monarchy to still have coronations.

“The thing to remember is that the coronation is a state event and that means that it should be paid for by the state,” Prescott said. “To some extent, the King doesn’t have a choice. The expectation has always been that we would have a coronation for a new monarch,” he said, adding that there were monarchs in the past who wanted to skip the ceremony — like William IV — but were convinced it was a constitutional necessity.

Billington, the teacher, added: “I do feel sorry for the King because he has waited decades for this to happen and now, in his 70s, he finally gets to be the King and all of a sudden his coronation is in the middle of a cost of living crisis, which isn’t his fault.”

“But at the same time, he does have all of those estates, he does have all that money coming in from the estates, could he not have maybe said ‘right, well, as the royal family, we will pay half of the bill rather than it coming from public funds,'” she said.

As the current sovereign, Charles owns the £16.5 billion Crown Estate, a sprawling portfolio of property and investments that includes numerous buildings in central London, offshore wind farms and farming land.

But even though the King is technically the owner of the estate, it’s not his private property. He has no say over how it’s managed and he certainly can’t sell any of it. Under an arrangement dating back to 1760, the monarch hands over all profits from the estate to the government in return for a slice, called the Sovereign Grant.

The grant is essentially the King’s expense account, covering items like travel, staff and household costs. In 2017, the allowance was raised from 15% to 25% of the profits for the following 10 years to cover refurbishment costs at Buckingham Palace. It was set at £86.3 million for this financial year, the same as the previous year.

Another key source of the King’s income is the Duchy of Lancaster, a private estate that dates back to 1265 and is worth £653 million. In the most recent financial year, the duchy produced £24 million in income for the King.

The end of an era

The world has gotten used to seeing splashy royal events on a regular basis over the past decade or so. Since 2011, there’s been two major jubilees, several big royal weddings and a once-in-a-generation state funeral. That era, however, is coming to an end.

“This coronation will be the last big royal event, the last big moment for the monarchy for a considerable time, until perhaps Prince George gets married in 15, 20 years time,” Prescott speculated.

At St. John the Evangelist Church in Doncaster, the coronation day will be just another Saturday, with the food bank and community cafe running as normal. Saturdays have been busy in recent months, because they tend to be the only day people who are working can come.

Like every week, Unsworth and his team will be working hard to make people feel welcome — especially those coming for the first time.

Liz Coopey, one of the volunteers there, said she understands the idea of having to rely on a food bank might be scary to many. “But right now, everybody is feeling the pinch, unless you’re a millionaire,” she said.

Speaking about one particular millionaire — the King — she too said she wasn’t sure it was wise to spend millions in public money on the coronation.

“I’m not saying that the monarchy is a bad thing because I don’t think it is. But do you know what? Put in plain English, when the country is on the bones of its arse, it’s not a good look,” she said.

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