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Britain’s democracy icon awaits renewal

Prasun Sonwalkar
Filed on September 16, 2021
Alamy Stock photo

A centre of power for over 900 years, the Palace of Westminster has long influenced world history

There are several popular selfie points in central London. If you walk regularly across Waterloo Bridge or Westminster Bridge, you develop skills to negotiate singles, couples and groups of excited tourists posing with a range of expressions before mobile cameras, particularly during the summer months. The South Bank area usually has a multilingual buzz, with tourists making a beeline for panoramic rides on the London Eye, crowding around street artistes and singers, visiting attractions like the London Dungeon or simply enjoying the sights, sounds and food along the Thames. This summer, the area has been less busy, the buzz is at a low key due to travel restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, but the many iconic backdrops continue to attract a large number of selfie-seekers, particularly the Palace of Westminster that includes the House of Commons, House of Lords and the Big Ben.

Few legislature buildings with a living heritage have witnessed so much, for so long and had such influence across the globe, as history unfolded over the centuries. Besides evolving ideas of democracy from the days of the Magna Carta, the palace has overseen industrial and other revolutions, the high tide of the British Empire, World Wars, decolonisation, and much more. The palace has been burnt down (1834), bombed (1941), and faced terror attack (2017), besides facing other challenges. It contains a fascinating mixture of ancient and modern buildings, and houses a rare collection of furnishings, archives and works of art, including a large mural by William Rothenstein (1872-1945) depicting a defining moment that lay the foundation of British influence in India: Britain’s first diplomatic representative, Thomas Roe (1581-1644), in the court of Mughal emperor Jahangir in Ajmer in 1616 (Roe was sent to India by King James I in 1614 to establish diplomatic relations with the Mughal Empire).

Winston Churchill, one of the legendary parliamentarians in British history, was clear about the global symbolism of the palace. When the House of Commons was gutted during the Blitz in May 1941, he said: “It is the citadel of liberty; it is the foundation of our laws; its traditions and privileges are as lively today as when it broke the arbitrary power of the Crown. The House has shown itself able to face the possibility of national destruction with classical composure. It can change governments and has changed them by heat of passion. It can sustain government in long, adverse, disappointing struggles through many dark, grey months and even years until the sun comes out again…We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

But it is also a tale of decay. Selfie-seekers and others have often captured large scaffolding and other building works across the palace in recent years. The Big Ben is still covered in scaffolding but is towards the end of a four-year restoration programme costing nearly £80 million that began in 2017, when the popular clock fell silent. The Victorian cast iron roofs of the palace leak badly and are already undergoing substantial repair. The dimensions of the palace reflect its history, modern usage and pose several challenges to its restoration and renewal: a floorplate the size of 16 football pitches, with 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases, 4.8 km of passageways, four floors and 65 different levels. From the Victoria Tower in the south to the Big Ben in the north, the building is nearly 300 metres long. The debating chambers of the two Houses lie on opposite sides of a central lobby. There are three towers across the palace: Victoria Tower (home to parliamentary archives dating back to 1497), the Central Tower, and the Big Ben. The oldest building is the Westminster Hall, which has been the scene of major moments in Britain’s political life, built by William II over 900 years ago, when it was considered the largest hall in Europe.

As Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, says: “Since 2017, there have been over 40,000 problems reported and the palace is now deteriorating faster than it can be repaired. Anyone who ventures into the basement will see for themselves why. Steam pipes run alongside electric cables. Hundreds of miles of cabling are now in need of replacement. A sewage ejector, installed in 1888, is still in use today. In short, there is a meandering multiplicity of multifarious materials all in need of urgent attention and all increasing the vulnerability of the building.” The cost of maintaining the palace is estimated to rise by £2 million a week. Many of its features have not been renovated since the 19th century. The longer the essential work is left, the greater the risk of a catastrophic failure from fire, flooding or falling masonry, which would bring the work of parliament to a sudden halt. Pollution has caused extensive decay to stonework, the roofs and drainpipes are leaking, most of the 4,000 bronze windows need repair and the building is riddled with asbestos.

No more ‘patch-and-mend’

For at least two decades, MPs, ministers and parliamentary committees have expressed concern over the state of the building, particularly the constant risk of fire, besides frustration over delays, stalling and being-in-denial by leading figures. The situation today is no different from the 1820s, when the palace was notoriously at risk from fire; records show it was then also unhealthy, filthy and badly ventilated. Since 2008, the palace caught fire on more than 40 occasions. A fire-safety team has been patrolling the palace for several years, every hour of every day; the palace does not meet the standards of modern fire safety. Based along the Thames, there is extensive erosion to the structure and damage to the stonework is visible throughout.

But the main problem lies in its mechanical and electrical services: the vast network in two levels in the basement of pipes, cables and machinery that carry heat, ventilation, air-conditioning, power, water, sewage, data, and dozens of other essential services. Many of the systems were last replaced in the late 1940s and reached the end of their projected life in the 1970s and 1980s. The patch-and-mend approach, which has seen the building through recent decades, is no longer sustainable. Unless an intensive programme of major remedial work is undertaken soon, it is likely that the building will become uninhabitable, a joint parliamentary committee concluded in 2016.

A more recent analysis finds that there has been significant under-investment since the House of Commons chamber was rebuilt after the 1941 bombing. The patch-and-mend approach is failing, partly because it is a working parliament and major remedial work can only be tackled during holidays. According to the National Audit Office, between 2015-16 and 2018-19, parliament spent £369 million on projects to keep the palace in use. Over the four-year period, spending to maintain the palace increased from £62 million to £127 million per year. Without significant restorative work, ongoing maintenance costs are expected to further increase. There is a backlog of repairs estimated at over £1 billion. Throughout the palace there is poor access to the disabled and the emergency evacuation procedures for those with limited mobility is considered unacceptable.

Says Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, which published a report on the issue in October 2020: “Parliament is literally falling apart around the thousands of people who work there and the million or so who, in better times, visit every year. It poses a very real risk to health and safety in its current state. The restrictions of the pandemic may provide an opportunity in this context and it’s time for those responsible to get creative and get to work. After nearly 20 years of discussion and costs to the taxpayer of just maintaining Parliament now rising by £2 million a week, what we don’t need is for the authorities to keep reopening and reviewing what few decisions have been taken…We need rapid learning from comparable projects, clear vision, leadership and direction, now. The cost of the project will be high but doing nothing is not an option and is certainly not a cost-free option. Without action, we are just ratcheting up the bill to the taxpayer.”

After deliberations and resolutions by several parliamentary bodies, a Restoration and Renewal Programme led by experts and engineers was established in 2013, followed by passing the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act in 2019. A two-tier governance structure — similar to the one that delivered the 2012 London Olympics — has now been established: a Sponsor Body and a Delivery Authority. The Sponsor Body is the single client accountable to parliament and oversees the Delivery Authority, which carries out the work. A statutory organisation separate from parliament, the Sponsor Body owns the scope, budget and timescale of the programme.

‘The working heart of democracy’

Following a strategic review in March this year that included focussing on ‘do minimum’ and ‘do maximum’ options, a spokesperson for the programme confirmed that a detailed restoration plan is being developed, based on thousands of hours of investigations. Over parliament’s summer recess, 50 highly skilled lighting, mechanical, electrical, structural, civil, and architectural surveyors spent 4,700 hours examining 2,343 rooms and spaces investigating issues and creating the most detailed record of the building ever created. The results of the surveys are being used in developing a detailed and costed plan that will for the first time give parliamentarians a true and accurate sense of the costs, timescales and full detail of the essential work needed, which will be placed before parliament in early 2023, with work expected to begin in the mid-2020s.The cost is already mentioned in the billions of pounds and many MPs feel spending such vast amounts of money on their own workplace is politically impossible at a time of growing public ennui with politics.

As Rees-Mogg told the House, “Fortunately, we are now moving towards the historic moment when this House is asked to approve a motion allowing the works to commence in the mid-2020s as planned. Such a decision, involving billions of pounds of public funds, taxpayers’ money, which would ideally be spent elsewhere, cannot be taken on a whim, so three requirements must be met if the Restoration and Renewal programme is to command the confidence of the House and of taxpayers: first, the proposal must be robust and evidence-based; secondly, it must give value for money and we must cut out unnecessary spending; and thirdly, the plans need to be up to date…We cannot know how much the programme will cost in reality until the outline business case is published…We have to explain to our constituents when we spend money on ourselves, so the vital works test will be a key one. As we save the palace, there must be no blank cheque.”

One of the central issues MPs will decide in 2023 is whether to ‘decant’ — leave the palace of Westminster — and relocate elsewhere until the work is completed over several years or opt for phased work while MPs and lords remain in the palace; both options have implications for years and funds needed. Under the more costly decant option, the MPs would relocate to nearby Richmond House, while the lords would hold sittings in the Queen Elizabeth II Centre. There is politics involved, with most Conservative MPs previously voting against a full decant, while most Labour MPs voted for it. Some recent media reports suggest that senior figures may seek a reassessment of the programme itself, favouring a quick fix in the form of minor repairs to the House of Commons over one year.

Virendra Sharma, senior Labour MP, says: “The restoration and renewal programme, repairing the Palace of Westminster, protecting it and preserving it for future generations is an important step in parliament’s future. The work needs to start as soon as possible, the terrible fate of Notre Dame shows how vulnerable our venerable old buildings are to fire, and parliament just isn’t up to date. The building is an important historical record of the development of democracy in this country with parts dating back almost 1000 years. I love that the building is still in use, and this work will protect its use as the working heart of democracy for years to come.”

(Prasun is a journalist based in London. He tweets @PrasunSonwalkar.)





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