'Parliament is falling apart faster than it can be fixed' - what next for the Restoration and Renewal?
Make no mistake, the Restoration and Renewal of Parliament is urgent. But first, we need to agree on the direction we want to take
Parliament is no stranger to crisis. It has continued to sit through wars and economic crashes. It sat even when many of its original buildings burned down in the 1800s.
During this latest upheaval Parliament has been forced, like the rest of us, to embrace innovation and adapt to challenging circumstances. As yet we do not know what our new world looks like. But we do know there is a willingness to do things differently.
Just two weeks after lockdown the Houses of Parliament Restoration and Renewal Sponsor Body, which I lead as chief executive, became an independent organisation separate from but accountable to Parliament. Our mission is to save the Palace of Westminster, the home of our democracy for almost 1,000 years.
Neglected for decades, the Palace is falling apart faster than it can be fixed, which means there is a growing risk of catastrophic failure from fire, flooding or falling masonry. Fixing these problems is a huge task. The refurbishment of the Palace, with its footprint the size of 16 football pitches, will be the biggest, most complex heritage renovation ever undertaken in the UK.
My job is to make sure that we get it right. And getting it right means we must make sure that the evidence on which we base our decisions is solid and enduring - setting us up for success to create a modern working Parliament and deliver the best value for money at every step of the way.
Neglected for decades, the Palace is falling apart faster than it can be fixed, which means there is a growing risk of catastrophic failure from fire, flooding or falling masonry
That’s why we are leading a review to consider and test all the evidence and assumptions made in the recent past. It’s been five years since the plan was drawn up for all MPs and Lords to leave the Palace temporarily while the work was carried out. At the time it was chosen as the most cost-effective solution.
It was always envisaged by the Joint Committee that when the Sponsor Body was set up in law to oversee the project, and the Delivery Authority established to carry out the work, that certain aspects of the Programme would be reviewed. But given the completely altered political and economic landscape in which everyone is now operating, that review is slightly more fundamental.
The context in which both Houses made their decisions about restoration and renewal has changed and the National Audit Office (NAO) report into the project last month highlighted the critical need for consistent political support.
In the light of Covid-19, there are also likely to be other key drivers arising from the massive impact that the pandemic is having on our way of life, on economic activity and on public finances.
Our response to these new imperatives has been to propose a strategic review of the programme that will provide decision-makers with a framework to determine how they wish to proceed.
The Sponsor Body, as the single client accountable to Parliament, is well placed to conduct this review which will be led by me, Liz Peace CBE, Chair of the Sponsor Body Board, and professional programme management experts, including David Goldstone, CEO of the Delivery Authority.
The review team will be subject to challenge by an independent panel, which will include Government and independent members and senior parliamentary figures, including a representative of Lord Fowler, Lord Speaker; Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, Leader of the House of Commons; Baroness Evans, Leader of the House of Lords and Nigel Evans MP, Deputy House of Commons Speaker on behalf of Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Mr Speaker.
We also want to hear from Members themselves and other third parties. That’s why we are asking people to contribute to inform our review and ensure we embrace the widest range of views.
Submissions are therefore invited on any political, economic, commercial, social or technological or environmental developments since 2016 that may affect decisions about how the Houses of Parliament are restored. For more details see www.restorationandrenewal.uk
Our review will make recommendations on whether the current solutions offer value for money; what compromises would need to be made to save money; what opportunities exist for simpler, quicker and cheaper temporary accommodation and how new ways of working developed in response to Covid-19 affect Parliament’s requirements.
We expect to report our findings in the autumn. Both Houses will have the ultimate say on any major recommendations that are made in the review.
With big projects, it is important to be brave and ask the right questions at the right time. Our current strategy may well be confirmed as the right one and to date we have seen nothing to suggest that previous analysis of the state of the Palace is arguable. The outcome of the review may be no more than a touch on the tiller; alternatively we may require a course correction.
Only after we complete the review and consider the expert findings on all the reports, inspections, investigations and surveys, can the Restoration and Renewal team confidently design a programme to develop a 21st century Parliament and produce a business case for decisions by both Houses.
Make no mistake. The Palace needs saving and restoration and renewal is urgent.
Throughout, we are consulting Members and staff, at all times respectful of the differences of the two Houses. Then, from the wide range of views, we are developing a set of requirements that is consistent, deliverable and affordable.
The National Audit Office emphasised that we must have a single set of objectives and requirements from Parliament. It warned that we must avoid “scope creep” and guard against any attempts to “gold-plate” the outcome.
To that end we are committed to learning lessons from previous infrastructure projects and will ensure value for money at every stage through stringent audit and assurance processes.
But make no mistake. The Palace needs saving and restoration and renewal is urgent. Since 2016, according to the NAO, Parliament has spent more than £369m on projects to keep the Palace working – and the maintenance bill is increasing sharply every year. There is already a backlog of repairs estimated at well over £1 billion.
This project is also an enormous opportunity for the country, a chance to celebrate British ingenuity and optimism. It will require engineering and construction capability beyond anything Parliament has seen since the Palace was built.
Restoration and renewal will also benefit SMEs across all regions of the UK, and is expected to support thousands of jobs and training opportunities in construction, engineering, design, and IT, as well as attracting those with specialist heritage skills.
We can definitely play our part in kickstarting the economy again. But first, let’s confirm our agreed direction so we can press on and get the job done.
Sarah Johnson is chief executive of the Houses of Parliament Restoration and Renewal Sponsor Body. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Daily Telegraph.
The R&R Sponsor Body is inviting contributions to inform its strategic review.
Submissions are invited on any political, economic, commercial, social or technological or environmental developments since 2016 that may affect decisions about how the Houses of Parliament are restored.
More information on the review and how to make a submission is available at: