Why I’m proposing we move our MPs and Lords into Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace is a ghost ship, and the Palace of Westminster is falling apart. The solution? Ask the King to vacate and temporarily move the Commons and Lords chambers into his pad

December 22, 2023
Image: Malcolm Park / Alamy
Image: Malcolm Park / Alamy

If there was a prize for the saddest building in London, Buckingham Palace would surely walk it. It is a statuesque ghost ship—too vast, too chilly, too puffed up to be loved, even by the family for which it was built. 

It is currently being “reserviced”—such a charming euphemism for a £369m makeover which the taxpayer will fund through an inflated sovereign grant. But even when done, there is little sign that our newish King wants to live there. 

By all accounts King Charles prefers the more modest quarters at nearby Clarence House—with occasional forays to Windsor, Sandringham, Balmoral, Highgrove, Birkhall, Dumfries House and his other pads, including his estates in Romania.

So—apart from a half-floated idea of turning the gargantuan rambling mausoleum at the end of the Mall into some kind of royal museum—Buckingham Palace has no future use, bar the odd state dinner and the occasional balcony picture opportunity.

Barely a mile away is another palace down on its luck—the Palace of Westminster. Its present condition is even more desperate than Buckingham Palace. It is infested with rats and riddled with asbestos. Almost everything about it—its wiring, heating, cabling, ventilation, water, drainage—was last replaced in the late 1940s or 1950s and is on the point of either falling apart or combusting.

Eight years ago, after two decades of discussion, an urgent committee report warned of a “single catastrophic failure”—a devastating fire, extensive flooding or a major gas leak, for example. There have been 44 fires since 2016: maintenance costs are now £2m a week. There are 2,500 asbestos sites. The building is a basket case.

What to do? Assorted committees have looked at the cost of refurbishing the palace while MPs and peers stay put—£5.6bn in 2014 prices, and a programme lasting around 30 years.

The alternative is to decant everyone to an alternative site and complete the job more quickly and cheaply (still £3.52bn in 2014 prices and works lasting around five to eight years). 

After the fiasco of HS2, it might be advisable to add a nought to any of these figures and triple the estimated time rebuilding could take.

But where could legislators go? The idea of moving out of London was quickly discounted: a report in 2016 agreed a new home would have to be near civil servants in Whitehall.

Westminster Hall? Too medieval and problematic. A temporary building in Victoria Tower Gardens and/or Parliament Square? Meh. Horse Guards Parade, temporary rafts on the Thames? Richmond House in Whitehall? The QE2 Conference Centre? All had their disadvantages.

You can see where I’m going with this. Move one palace into the other.

The royal ballroom (648 square metres) is way bigger than the House of Commons debating chamber (336 square metres), so that’s the main problem solved. I suspect the House of Lords—at least those who regularly turn up—would fit comfortably into the throne room or the state dining room. There are 19 other state rooms for committee hearings and the like, and a staggering 775 rooms in all.

The total floor space—77,000 square metres—is admittedly somewhat smaller than the 112,000 square metres of the Palace of Westminster. But the royal palace sits in 19 acres of gardens, together with a massive forecourt, currently used for ornamental marching. The former would be much appreciated by the legislators and their staff. The latter could accommodate a temporary building, much as Sir Norman Foster proposed with his £300m pop-up parliament. There’s little doubt that, one way or another, everyone would fit in nicely.

So why was this option never considered by the lords and commoners who produced a comprehensive 120-page report in 2017? Well, the late Queen was in her 90s, and such a proposal might have been considered an act of disrespectful lèse-majesté. 

But King Charles is a different kettle of royal fish. He has signalled his wish to gently reform the monarchy, even if there have been few signs of transformation to date. Assuming none of the working royals are keen to move into Buckingham Palace, it would be unconscionable to leave such a building empty apart from office staff and the occasional state function.

When it was proposed that a large sum of money should be granted to Queen Victoria to do up Buckingham Palace in 1840, there was an angry objection from William Williams, the radical MP for Coventry. 

Hansard records him as pointing out that there were already 11 royal palaces in all. “He maintained that those who objected to those unnecessary expenses were the real friends of the monarchy, and that those who encouraged them were its enemies. The pressure upon the taxation of the country was already such as the people could not bear, and he warned the House against laying fresh burdens upon it.”

Scroll forward 180-odd years and we still have a monarch with at least 10 large and expensive houses, castles or palaces which he can call home. Let him offer to swap—if only temporarily—one palace for the Palace of Westminster. Send the magnificent art collections on tour.

And then, once the Houses of Parliament have been restored—perhaps 20 years from now—we can have a discussion about what to do to stop Buckingham Palace being the saddest building in London.