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What can Westminster learn from the regeneration of the Canadian Parliament?

What can Westminster learn from the regeneration of the Canadian Parliament?
6 min read

Canadian MPs and Senators are preparing to leave their Parliament building as part of a major regeneration plan. But what can their experience teach us about the Palace of Westminster’s own Restoration and Renewal? Norman Fowler, the Lord Speaker, reports back from Ottawa 


It could be Westminster. From the outside the Parliament building looks both impressive and in good condition. There is even a tall tower that rises above the building that could be a replica of Big Ben. Inside visitors flock through the sprawling corridors, and in the chamber itself the Prime Minister defends the government’s economic record in a raucous house.

In fact this is Ottawa. But, like Westminster, if there is one issue that unites both Houses – the Commons and the Senate – it is an understanding that the Parliament building, built just after the trauma of the First World War, is no longer fit for purpose. There have been decades of wear and of neglect. The building is riddled with asbestos. There is the ever-present danger of fire, flood, and leaks. The structural metal work is in poor shape, and the wiring is simply not up to 21st century standards.

So much then is the same – the difference is that the Canadians are doing something about it.

They have rejected the policy of mend “as we go along” as both ineffective and ultimately vastly more expensive. In contrast at Westminster we employ 24 inspectors on a 24 hour, seven days a week basis simply to check that no fires have broken out. Since 2008 there have been 60 incidents which could have resulted in a serious fire.

The Canadian Parliament have taken a radically different and, they would argue, a much more effective path. They are on the last lap of a regeneration programme which will mean that MPs and senators all move out of the main Parliament building and leave the contractors to carry out the essential work.

The House of Commons will move to neighbouring office buildings which now provide not only a debating chamber and committee rooms but also high standard accommodation for members themselves. Work on substitute arrangements for the Senate is also well under way in what was once Ottawa’s main railway station. Union Station, a heritage building completed in 1912, was later converted into a government conference centre and is now being transformed into a temporary chamber for the upper house where senators will meet to deliberate and debate for at least a decade.

At present the site is a vast underground workshop dominated by high scaffolding. An architect’s drawing shows just how the former railway station will be adapted and, once the senators have moved back, the building will be left in a much-improved state. Work is due to conclude by next autumn and so far all the stages of the move have been delivered on time and on budget.

The final move from the main Parliament building will take place next year and both MPs and senators accept that they will not return for about a decade. There are likely to be some MPs elected at the next election who may not even have the chance of sitting in the traditional Parliament building. In general, this is seen by most Canadian parliamentarians as the price for ensuring the long-term future of a building which, like the Palace of Westminster, is prized by the public. “The future of the building has become a matter of national pride”, one MP told me.

So what are the lessons for us here at Westminster? To start with, a point of general agreement: no one seriously contests the need for the repair and restoration of the Palace. Three recent reports have spelled out the defects:

  • In June 2015 there was the Independent Options Appraisal carried out by Deloitte;
  • In September 2016 we had the cross-party Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster; and
  • Most recently in March 2017 the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee reported.

All three reports said the position was both serious and urgent – and all three saw a ‘full decant’ of both Commons and Lords from the Palace as the best way forward. Despite the reports, substantive debates on the issue have yet to take place, although there have been no fewer than four promises that debates would be held in both Houses.

No one contests the international reputation of the Palace of Westminster. It is the most photographed building in the country. If we want to preserve it then work must be done, and done urgently. The critical question is how? The reports are united in saying that patching up as we go along will be vastly more problematic and expensive – the Joint Committee said that conducting the works in a single phase, involving a full decant, would allow the works to be completed in the shortest possible timeframe, would minimise the risk of disruption to the day-to-day operation of Parliament and would likely involve a lower capital cost than a staggered approach. 

Unless action is taken, by 2020 some 40% of the building’s essential services – including power, heating, ventilation, fire safety and water – will be at an unacceptably high risk of failure. By 2025, it will be more than 50%.

In the end, like so many issues, it comes down to a question of money. No one pretends that a full decant of the Palace of Westminster will be cheap but it will not be as expensive in the short-term as some claim. In Ottawa the cost has been spread over a number of years. Current estimates place the total cost of the project in the region of $6bn Canadian Dollars.

So what guarantee is there in London that the cost of the project will not exceed initial estimates? As the Canadian contractors say the truth is that accurate estimates are notoriously difficult to make, as our experience with Big Ben showed only too well. We will not know conclusively what needs to be done until the contractors are on site and have full access.

We have one important assurance. In London, the proposal is to have a separate delivery authority to carry out the main works which will be overseen by a sponsor board made up of parliamentarians and senior officials. It was just this model that allowed the London Olympics costing £8.8bn to come in on time and on budget. 

The Canadians are proud of what they are achieving and politely do not probe too deeply about progress on our side of the Atlantic. On the other hand, there is some puzzlement that so little progress is being made in restoring a building which enjoys a global reputation and occupies such an iconic place in the Commonwealth. 

 

Norman Fowler is the Lord Speaker and Chairman of the House of Lords Commission

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