Caroline Spelman: Make Parliament fit for the 21st century
Parliament's Restoration and Renewal presents an ideal opportunity to improve disability access and provide essential educational facilities, writes Dame Caroline Spelman
Parliament has certainly been through some turbulent times over the last few weeks and the raised temperatures of the Brexit debates may have diverted attention from the fact that the very building hosting these momentous political moments is under threat. We have known for some time now that the Palace of Westminster is at risk of catastrophic failure and that a major programme of work is required to put that right.
That programme, which has become known as Restoration and Renewal, was endorsed by both Houses of Parliament in early 2018 when the Commons and Lords both agreed that the work was necessary and that a full decant of the Palace of Westminster was the best and most cost-effective way of carrying it out. The Government brought forward a draft Bill in December last year setting out how the programme would be governed and what it would achieve. I have chaired a Committee of both Houses looking in detail at that Bill and this week we published our report. In doing so we have joined the ever-increasing chorus of Committees and other bodies who have recognised the urgency and importance of the R&R programme and called on Government and Parliament to make progress as quickly as possible in delivering it.
We think the Governance structures set out in the Bill, with a Sponsor Body setting the scope of R&R, and a separate Delivery Authority commissioning the work is fit for purpose. It was a model that worked well for the Olympics and should help shield the programme from the risk of ever changing scope and political interference, something our witnesses agreed was the greatest danger in major public sector infrastructure projects. However we do suggest that a Treasury Minister should join the Sponsor Body. The cost of R&R may total more than £4bn and to ensure the Government, or more likely Governments, that will signing those cheques over the lifespan of the programme stay onboard we think they should have seat at the Sponsor Body’s table.
What exactly is it that Restoration and Renewal should deliver? It seemed to us there was a good degree of clarity on what was required to meet the challenges of the restoration part of R&R. The building needs a major overhaul of its mechanical and engineering systems with many of the vital arteries that provide the heating and ventilation in the building up to 130 years old and often buried in the basement with goodness knows what else.
Add to that more than 4,000 windows in the Palace – may of which do not shut properly and need to be replaced, the advanced disrepair of much of the stone works including the incomparable but sadly deteriorating and now inaccessible Cloister Court, a lost gem of the Palace which dates back to the reign of Henry VIII, and the need to detect and remove significant amounts of asbestos and it is clear that restoration of the Palace of Westminster is long overdue.
But what of renewal? How can we make the most of the opportunity the programme will provide to make Parliament fit for the 21st century? To start with we were clear that the R&R must deliver changes that make the Palace of Westminster far more accessible to visitors with disabilities. We recommended that while the maintaining the heritage of the Palace of Westminster was important, the desire to protect the historic fabric should not take precedence over other requirements for improved accessibility where they come into conflict.
The opportunity for R&R to deliver greater access to the seat of our democracy goes beyond meeting modern expectations on disability access, although there is huge room for improvement here. R&R presents an opportunity to reimagine how the public experience Parliament and engage with it.
To ensure that opportunity is effectively grasped we have recommended the requirement the Bill places on the R&R Sponsor Body for educational facilities to be included in the post R&R Palace of Westminster be upgraded from ‘desirable’ to ‘necessary’ and that there should be a further requirement to promote public engagement with and public understanding of Parliament.
These changes should ensure R&R delivers more than just a restored and safer building but also a renewed Parliament better connected to the public it serves.
Dame Caroline Spelman is Conservative MP for Meriden and Chair of the Joint Committee on the Draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill