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Parliamentary Possibilities

7 min read

Tony Grew runs through the fraught history of Parliament’s restoration and renewal saga, and comes up with a proposal of his own for how to solve it.

MPs were issued with a stark warning last month. The Public Accounts Committee published its report into the project to restore and renew the Palace of Westminster. 

The committee pointed out what is obvious to many who have been following this frustratingly slow process: namely “the real risk that the whole building will be destroyed by a catastrophic incident before the work is done, or perhaps even begun”.

Complaints about the inadequate facilities in the Palace are nothing new. Neither is ignoring warnings about risks to the building. In 1789 fourteen architects produced a report warning against the possibility of fire in the Palace. The House authorities were warned again in 1828, when Sir John Soane wrote about "the want of security from fire”. Six years later a fire that started in the House of Lords destroyed much of the Palace of Westminster. 

The 21st Century restoration and renewal project began when a joint committee of both Houses was appointed in July 2015. Everyone agreed that the Palace needed repair, and lots of people had many interesting suggestions about how it should be done. In September 2016 the joint committee published their report. It included the familiar warning of the “substantial and growing risk that a catastrophic event such as a major fire, or incremental system failures, will lead to the building being uninhabitable”.

The committee concluded that the lowest risk, most cost-effective and quickest option to undertake R&R would be for all MPs, peers, and staff to move out of the Palace temporarily in one single phase ­– a full decant. 

Plans were drawn up for the Lords to move across the road  to the QEII exhibition centre and for the Commons to sit in a temporary chamber next to Richmond House. Legislation was passed. Objections came thick and fast, and many of them were valid. The full decant option would have meant MPs and peers moving out for five years – that seemed overly optimistic. 

Sir Edward Leigh, one of the loudest critical voices of the original R&R proposals, wrote in this magazine last year: “Millions have been wasted exploring hugely ambitious proposals like demolishing Richmond House, making this Victorian palace carbon-neutral, filling glassed-over courtyards with offices, and so on. The risk of restoration becoming a vast feeding frenzy at the expense of taxpayers is enormous, and MPs are wise to resist a long and costly gold-plated decant.”

We have an opportunity now to ask ourselves: what is our place in the world? What sort of building best reflects that?

Parliament has now reorganised the project, with the Clerk of the House of Commons and Clerk of the Parliaments taking joint accountability for restoration and renewal, with an R&R client team to support them and hold the Delivery Authority to account. 

There is now a two-tier governance structure, with a Client Board to make strategic choices and recommendations to a Programme Board. Nearly seven years on from that initial report, progress has been painfully slow. The patch and mend continues. 

Maintaining this crumbling Palace, a building manifestly unfit for purpose, is estimated to cost £2m a week. The solution is obvious, but it requires a different way of thinking.  Instead of trying to fit the needs of a 21st century parliament into a 19th century building, we should build a new Palace of Westminster.

We have a responsibility to restore the old Palace and let it stand as a grand monument to the Victorians who built it. We in turn should build a new Palace just as iconic as the old. This does not mean moving out of London or even out of Westminster, but it will require MPs and peers to readjust their mindset. The world we live in has transformed beyond recognition since the old Palace was completed in 1870. We can only imagine how much the world will change in the next 150 years. 

Clinging on to a building that’s inaccessible for wheelchair users, that doesn’t have enough toilet facilities, childcare spaces or indeed power points for 2020s requirements is absurd. It also indicates a country more interested in the past than the future. 

We spend one hundred million pounds a year on this building just to stand still. The place where we work wasn’t designed for the modern age, yet we seem to think the solution is to work around reality rather than change it. 

We comfort ourselves with myths about how old these spaces are, but they are myths. The Commons chamber is not much more than 70 years old. The Victorian version was destroyed during the Blitz. For nearly ten years the Commons sat in the Lords chamber. 

We can expand the new Palace’s footprint to the Thames, reconfiguring traffic along the Embankment and allowing the new building river terraces

After the Second World War, the desire was to return the bombed parts of the Palace to how they looked before. That contrasts with the Victorian self-confidence to build a Palace that reflected their perceived place in the world. We have an opportunity now to ask ourselves: what is our place in the world? What sort of building best reflects that? 

This is not about abandoning tradition. In October 1943, speaking in at a sitting of the Commons in the Lords chamber, prime minister Winston Churchill observed: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” 

He was talking about rebuilding – recreating – the Commons chamber. In the new Palace, the chamber should be much like the old. Benches facing each other, the Speaker’s chair, the table, the voting lobbies. But it should also have the flexibility to allow wheelchair users to take full part in its business. Cameras and microphones should be built into the design, a design that should take account of future technology. 

It is right that the old Palace of Westminster is a Grade 1 listed building. But is Norman Shaw North really in the same category? For all the flowery language on the Historic England website – corner tourelles, broken segmental pediment aedicules, obelisk finials – it’s manifestly not a good working environment. 

Walking along its drab corridors is reminiscent of scenes from horror movie The Shining. It is another example of MPs and staff being expected to work in an environment that may have been acceptable a century ago but isn’t today. Along with Norman Shaw South (grade 2 listed) it is the perfect site for the new Palace of Westminster. 

Some will object to demolishing listed buildings to make way for a new Palace, that we should continue to be a country more preoccupied with its past than its future.  MPs and peers will need to find the courage to face down the powerful lobby that is English Heritage. Pass a law if need be ­– Parliament is after all sovereign. 

And for those interested in tourelles and finials there is another listed building that is almost identical to the Norman Shaws, by the same architect, in Liverpool – Albion House.  

We can expand the new Palace’s footprint to the Thames, reconfiguring traffic along the Embankment and allowing the new building river terraces. Parliament will sit in much the same place it has sat for centuries, but in new digs. 

Most of all this new Palace of Westminster will showcase through its design and construction the best, most innovate, most forward-thinking ideas that global Britain has to offer the world. A symbol of this country as prominent as the old Palace, and over time hopefully as iconic.

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