The next steps for the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster
Liz Peace, the chair of the new governing body overseeing the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster, reveals the next crucial steps for the programme – and asks for parliamentarians’ help
Before taking up my position here in Parliament I, like many other people around the country, had very little reason to suspect that there was anything seriously wrong with the Palace of Westminster.
It looked solid and stable, and in pretty decent shape for a building of its age.
But over the course of the last few months, as I’ve been shown more and more of what lies behind the facade, it’s become increasingly obvious that the Palace suffers from some serious issues that are in increasingly urgent need of addressing.
Why is the restoration so important?
Those of you who have had the chance to be taken on a subterranean tour of the Palace will have seen the dilapidated and chaotic state of the vital services like plumbing, heating and electrics, may well have seen how the ninety or so risers or service shafts, originally vents for the circulation of air, have become a mess of jumbled cables and layers of pipework, and will have witnessed how the entire building relies on a sewage ejector system that is now over 130 years old.
And that’s just the story below ground.
Elsewhere in the Palace, decades of pollution have caused extensive decay to stonework, and a sizeable chunk of masonry fell from the building earlier this year. Internal plumbing regularly fails and the effects of wear and tear are evident in all the principal spaces. The 4,000 or so bronze windows in the Palace will all need to be taken out and repaired or replaced.
On top of all that, asbestos is everywhere, and the Palace needs major work to reduce the risk of fire spreading.
If that wasn’t reason enough, Parliament is spending a huge amount of money on everyday maintenance and repair, with the bill getting larger with every passing year. That’s because the rate of deterioration in the Palace means things are breaking down quicker than they can be fixed.
What’s happened this year?
Thankfully, really significant progress has been made, and some important milestones were passed this year.
Early in 2018, both Houses debated the best way to tackle the refurbishment, and agreed that it would be a more cost-effective, and timely option to leave the building entirely. This way the restoration team could get to work on an empty building, which presents fewer risks, greater efficiencies and would take less time.
Both Houses also passed resolutions in relation to the Programme, giving the wider restoration and renewal team a broad mandate to work to. These include a commitment to both Houses of Parliament that they would return to their historic chambers in the Palace, to keep value for money at the heart of the restoration programme, and an agreement to set up governance bodies through legislation.
The Sponsor Board
In the summer I was appointed to chair the Sponsor Board, alongside 11 other members, initially in a shadow form. We will between us be held accountable for the Programme, and in due course we will set up a Delivery Authority to do the heavy lifting and carry out the work itself.
While we as the Sponsor will own the budget and scope, we will remain accountable to Parliament throughout the lifetime of the restoration and we will hold the Delivery Authority to account for keeping within the timescale and budget, as approved by Parliament. We’ll have to set out our budgets to both Houses on a regular basis, and report back to Parliament with a realistic timetable for the works.
Another very welcome development this year has been the publication of the draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill. It was drawn up in partnership between the Government and Parliament, and once passed it will effectively set up in statutory form the governing bodies such as the Sponsor Body and Estimates Commission and also grant the Sponsor Body powers to set up the Delivery Authority as a limited company.
This two-tier approach, as used in the successful London Olympics project, is the best structure to deliver a value for money programme. The Bill will also help give the relevant bodies a degree of independence, as well as the ability to operate effectively in the commercial sphere.
This draft Bill will undergo pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee from both Houses so that it is in a much better shape to be introduced hopefully next spring.
Although the start of building works is still some years away, the team is busy doing all the necessary planning and preparing, and a key part of that now is engagement with those who use the Palace on how they would like it to be improved in the future. While the Sponsor is ultimately responsible for the restoration works, it is doing this on behalf of the two houses, and that’s why I believe it’s important that Members, as well as other users of the Palace, take this opportunity to have their say.
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime programme of work, with the potential to protect and celebrate the Palace’s heritage, while at the same time transform the building into a Parliament that is fit for future generations. And I’m determined we will get this right.
Liz Peace is chair of the shadow Sponsor Board of the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster