Neil Gray: We cannot artificially crowbar a 21st century parliament into an old palace
Neil Gray warns that the restoration of Parliament will cost “billions more” than the £4bn estimate and favours a cheaper, more practical, new-build. But persuading MPs to move rather than improve is a hard sell
Days before his 22nd birthday, Neil Gray was practising baton changes as part of a Scottish Commonwealth Games development squad. In front of the British relay coach, the 400m runner – personal best: 48.9 seconds – tripped over his spikes.
“That was it,” sighs Gray. “I ripped three of my ligaments and stretched the nerve on the outside of my left knee and I’ve still got an issue with my foot.”
That was eight years ago and Gray doesn’t know if he would have ended up good enough to make an Olympics. But he couldn’t help wondering what might have been if it weren’t for that career ending injury when he watched former colleagues like Eilidh Doyle win bronze in the 4x400m in Rio over the summer.
Still, if it weren’t for that injury, Gray would have had less time to put into the dissertation that earned him a first class degree in politics and journalism at the University of Stirling. Academic excellence led to jobs with the BBC and then the SNP which, in turn, saw him end up as the MP for Airdre and Shotts last May as the party cleared up in Scotland.
“I miss athletics greatly … but you have to look back and think philosophically about these things, so I possibly wouldn’t be where I am today if that hadn’t happened,” says Gray.
Still only 30, Gray has instead been competing on the joint select committee considering the grandly titled Restoration and Renewal Programme of the Palace of Westminster. The sole SNP member on the committee, his is also the dissenting voice.
Last month, the committee, led by transport secretary Chris Grayling and leader of the House of Lords Baroness Stowell, put a £4bn figure on the six-year revamp. Architect Charles Barry’s neo-Gothic masterpiece is riddled with asbestos, fire hazards, rodents and 3,000 windows that don’t shut properly. Part of the River Thames will probably have to be closed off to accommodate dry docks by the terrace where MPs, peers and their hangers-on currently sip wine and guzzle beer.
MPs will soon vote on whether to proceed with the plan, which will see them moved into the Department of Health’s Richmond House on Whitehall from 2022 to 2028. But Gray tabled an amendment arguing for “full consideration” to building an alternative, cheaper, and far more practical new parliament.
Gray was voted down in committee by 11 to one.
Speaking to The House, Gray goes much further, warning the £4bn figure is not a budget, but an “estimate of costs”. The engineers selected to oversee the project as a ‘delivery authority’ will have to work with a ‘sponsor board’ – comprised of MPs, peers, a minister, parliamentary clerks, a senior civil servant and two independent experts – to develop the business case, which will then determine the real budget.
And Gray thinks the number will be “billions more” than the £4bn that has already caused uproar among voters who are fed up with politicians and would rather money was not spent on sprucing up their working lives.
“No work has been done yet on the costs – that’s been put back to the sponsor board and the delivery authority to work out,” says Gray. “The options appraisal document suggests it will be around £4bn. My hunch is it will be significantly more than that once the full details of the project are gone through and once we get into the bones of delivering it.
“Any DIY job on an old building always throws up problems. I suspect with a building like the Palace of Westminster, where you’ve had add-ons, removals and antique construction, you’re going to find some pretty expensive pitfalls along the way.
“Until there are certain decisions made around the scope [of work] it’s going to be difficult to put a budget down. But I can almost guarantee the costs are going to be higher than £4bn. My concern with it is when they get into the guts of the basement and they find goodness knows what, because that’s medieval stuff down there.”
The palace was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1834 and badly damaged by 14 air raids during the second world war. Commons Speaker John Bercow has warned that it will be unusable within two decades if not repaired soon.
The access tunnel that runs underneath parliament, for example, is virtually blocked by several generations of technology, including telegraph wiring and broadband wiring.
Last year, a report by a consortium led by accountancy giant Deloitte estimated the cost between £3.5bn and £7.1bn depending on whether politicians were willing to move out or not, but many experts felt the report was flawed.
For example, Deloitte was not asked to look into the foundations of the building, which many fear have not been properly mapped and could spring all manner of nasty technical surprises.
Gray’s concern, though, is that a new-build parliament, where basic 21st century amenities like wireless broadband would actually work, was never even considered. His view has prominent support: Labour’s former shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna has long advocated the necessity of a move, arguing “we cannot continue with this 19th century way of doing politics”.
“I’m not a flag waver for a new Westminster, I just think that for this process to have any credibility you had to look at all of the options,” says Gray, who admits he has been a “sceptic” of the restoration from the off. “I think there are potential opportunities in a new- build parliament. If you go to the Scottish Parliament [opened in 2004], it’s an open bright, accessible building. Say what you will about the exterior – some people love it, some people hate it – but when you’re in the building, it’s well-functioning and easy to operate.
“Contrast that with the palace and it’s completely the opposite. My concern the whole way through the process on the committee was: ‘are we artificially crow-barring a parliament into an old palace at a premium?’ I think that is borne out in the costs that we’re looking at.”
Gray’s Olympic doldrums in August were lifted by the birth of his second child, Finlay. His daughter, Isla, is three years old.
He points out the Palace is family unfriendly, with only a nursery to help MPs who are struggling to be with their loved ones on a regular basis. Again, Gray contrasts this with the Holyrood Parliament which even has a public crèche – the only facility of its kind in Europe.
The Palace of Westminster is some way off this standard of childcare, just as having hundreds-of-years-old acts of parliament printed on vellum and weighing down Victoria Tower is a reminder that this has been the site of British democracy spanning 900 years.
Gray might not have made it to the athletics track in Rio, but he’s made it to the green benches in Westminster – and he’s determined not to drop the baton.