Why MPs must not backtrack on the restoration of parliament

Reports that full works may be abandoned raise troubling questions about safety

March 13, 2020
A view of the Palace of Westminster on the day of General Election in London, United Kingdom on December 12, 2019.  The Palace of Westminster serves as the meeting place of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the two houses of the Parliament of t
A view of the Palace of Westminster on the day of General Election in London, United Kingdom on December 12, 2019. The Palace of Westminster serves as the meeting place of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the two houses of the Parliament of t
Reports that MPs are considering backtracking on their decision to begin renovating the Palace of Westminster are depressingly familiar. Successive generations of politicians have expertly chucked this hot potato onto the next—avoiding having to justify to voters the billions of pounds’ worth of expenditure it will take to restore the dilapidated neo-gothic building. But in doing so they are failing to address the ever-growing risks to people working in parliament who face the possible consequences of falling masonry, fire or flood.

Attempts to persuade MPs and peers to sign off large-scale works on the Palace began three decades ago, with a 1990 report which found that a “substantial amount” of “essential” work was required on the Palace.

Last year it looked like real progress had finally been made with the passage—against the odds in the middle of parliament’s Brexit furore—of the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019. This gave effect to parliament’s decision in 2018 that work should finally begin on restoration and renewal, establishing a statutory delivery authority to take on responsibility for the works. The government made time for it to pass through parliament and it was backed by a cross-party coalition.

But since then a number of politicians have cast doubt on whether the decisions of the last parliament will be allowed to stand. The new Speaker Lindsay Hoyle suggested that newly-elected MPs should be given the chance to revisit the decision following the election. And now the Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg and others appear to favour backtracking on parliament’s previous decisions.

Their alternative plan would apparently avoid a complete decant—both Houses simultaneously moving out of the Palace. It has been reported that it would also remove the requirement to build a new temporary chamber in Richmond House—a listed building close to parliament—which has been a particularly controversial aspect of the project. It would essentially be an enhanced programme of smaller-scale renovations focussed on replacing mechanical and electrical equipment.

Although it might involve a temporary decant for the Lords (and the Commons sitting in their Chamber—good luck with getting their Lordships to agree to that) this plan sounds little different to the current approach of fitting in renovations around the sittings of the two Houses. Short-term renovations are crammed into every moment that the two Houses are not at work—weekends, recesses and prorogations.

Undertaking works in this fragmented way increases the length of time they will take and massively increases the cost. The normal annual costs of maintaining a grade 1 listed world heritage site already amount to tens of millions—only marginally less than the £160m reported by the Times as the budget for “sprucing up” the Palace. And every delay to the major project racks up further costs to the taxpayer.

Taking a minimalist approach to maintenance has long been seen by the parliamentary authorities as inadequate to tackle the problems that need to be addressed. Victorian boilers with an original life span of a few decades are staggering on, asbestos-riddled compartments or “risers” run through the building, inadequate fire compartmentalisation necessitates constant patrols by fire officers, and sewers creak under the pressure of parliament’s increasingly dense population. That’s before we consider the horror story of parliament’s basement, packed with cables, wires, pipes and switches—the purpose of many of which is unknown. Guy Fawkes wouldn’t need any gunpowder to set the current Palace ablaze.

Even without a catastrophic event, the decrepit state of the mouse and clothes moth infested Palace poses a constant risk to continuity of parliamentary business. Last year a flood in the Commons chamber brought a sitting to a premature end, small fires are not uncommon across the estate and MPs tell tales of sewage dripping into their offices. Cancelling the full restoration and renewal programme is tempting to parliamentarians reluctant to move out of the iconic Palace, but without it they continue to run the risk of an unplanned evacuation being thrust upon them in a continually deteriorating building.

The government might not think that spending billions on restoring the Palace of Westminster fits with its “levelling up” manifesto. But it should also consider how a Notre Dame-style fire rampaging through parliament will look to the world as a symbol of Global Britain.