Liz Peace: The Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster can make the whole country proud
Firstly, the tragic fire at the Notre Dame cathedral in April was a sobering reminder to all of us not only of the vulnerability, but also the unique importance, of historic buildings, writes Liz Peace
Those of us working on the Restoration and Renewal Programme have witnessed events in recent months that were cause for both deep concern and for celebration.
Firstly, the tragic fire at the Notre Dame cathedral in April was a sobering reminder to all of us not only of the vulnerability, but also the unique importance, of historic buildings.
The devastation to such an iconic city landmark brought the fate of the Palace of Westminster into sharp relief. Questions soon followed on the measures being taken to protect the building from a similar fate. And quite rightly.
The restoration of the Palace of Westminster remains a vital undertaking, for the good of the building and all those who visit and work in it, but also for the long-term safeguarding of the country’s heritage.
But for the past forty or so years, when it has come to carrying out a full-scale renovation of the Palace, we have witnessed a collective kicking of the can down the road. Sadly, we have now run out of road. The urgency of the work means we can’t simply patch the building up any longer. We have to get on with it.
Progress in Parliament
That’s why a different event a month later in the House of Commons was so welcome. On the 21 May the second reading of the Restoration and Renewal (Parliamentary Buildings) Bill took place.
The Bill effectively sets out how the whole restoration project will be managed, by establishing a two-tier governance structure. This will include a stand-alone Sponsor Board to oversee the Programme, and a Delivery Authority to manage and deliver the restoration work. This worked successfully for the London 2012 Olympics and we believe it will be the best model to govern the restoration and renewal of the Palace.
An ‘essential first step’ for R&R
A second milestone to celebrate, also in May, was the unveiling of Parliament’s plans for the Northern Estate buildings.
As many of you will know, these buildings are of considerable heritage value, with the oldest dating back to the 18th century. But much like the Palace they’re showing their age. They are in need of significant investment and refurbishment to bring them up to modern building and environmental standards. But they also need investment to enable access for people with disabilities and to create much more efficient work space fit for a modern parliament.
So in early May the House of Commons Commission announced its ambitious plans to carry out the work, and launched a public consultation on the proposals, ahead of an anticipated planning application later this year.
But just as importantly, the proposals also represent the essential first step to enable the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster to take place. This is because they include a substantial redevelopment of the existing Richmond House to provide a new temporary House of Commons chamber and all its associated facilities, to be used when work starts on the Palace.
A temporary home
The image accompanying this article shows the architect’s illustrative design of how the temporary Chamber will look within the redeveloped Richmond House.
The temporary Chamber has been carefully designed to replicate the familiar character and layout of the existing House of Commons Chamber, but it will also provide a much greater level of accessibility for MPs and visitors, including the public gallery. This much improved access will allow, for the first time, any wheelchair-using ministers to address their fellow Parliamentarians from the despatch box. Two lifts are also being planned for visitor access to the galleries, direct from Central Lobby.
Despite having to make efficiencies in what will be a smaller Chamber building, all the essential facilities for the functioning of Parliament will be provided around the Chamber. These include division lobbies, Committee Rooms, catering facilities, and a public and press gallery, as well as offices for the Speaker, Clerk of the House, Hansard and other core functions.
But for me the beauty of the proposal for Richmond House is that it provides a temporary home in a permanent structure. Parliament didn’t want to create a fully functioning House of Commons chamber that was only going to have a single, temporary purpose – that of being the House of Commons’ “home from home” while the Palace undergoes its renovation. This would not have been a good use of public money.
So it has been conceived as a permanent addition to the Northern Estate, incorporating exceptional and sensitive architectural design, with a flexibility that will allow for a range of creative legacy uses once the House of Commons returns to the Palace. Initial thoughts are that this part could become an educational facility, an emergency chamber, an exhibition space or even conference venue. Ultimately this will be for Parliament to decide.
Value for money
The legacy element of the building is key for one very important reason – looking after taxpayers’ money and focussing hard on driving down costs has to be kept at the heart of our planning.
And this goes for the work on the Palace too. Because of the size, age and structure of the building, it is thought to be the biggest and most complex renovation programme of any single building this country has known.
But we can’t allow that to be a reason for the costs to soar. We must stay on top of our game, and make sure that we make the country proud of how we have managed this complex, but vitally important, project.
Note on the public consultation: The consultation on the plans for the Northern Estate is open until the 28th of June. More information can be found at www.northernestate.parliament.uk
Liz Peace is chair of the Restoration and Renewal Sponsor Board