Repair of Britain's crumbling symbol of democracy faces more delay

Much debate has happened on how best to repair the building, but MPs, lords, parliamentary officials and experts continue to be divided on how best to proceed with the work needed

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Published: Sun 13 Nov 2022, 8:54 PM

Scratch the iconic view and the real picture emerges. As the baton passed from Boris Johnson to Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak in 2022, an extensive report highlighted the billions of pounds needed over decades to undertake repair and restoration work urgently needed in the Palace of Westminster by the Thames, which has been the centre of power for over 900 years. A Unesco world heritage site and the seat of what is widely known as the ‘mother of parliaments’, it is also a popular selfie point for hundreds of thousands of tourists from various vantage points on and around the Westminster Bridge. But take a closer look or go around its rooms and corridors and you see various stages of decay and decline.

Few legislature buildings with such living heritage have witnessed so much, for so long and had such influence across the globe, as history unfolded around it over the centuries – and perhaps there is none in such need of repair and restoration. But despite concern, warnings and reports over recent decades, there are yet no signs that work will begin anytime soon.

Since 2017, there have been over 40,000 problems reported, including 40 occasions since 2008 when the palace caught fire. A fire-safety team patrols the palace for several years, every hour of every day, since it does not meet standards of modern fire-safety. Some fear the building could be ‘another Notre Dame’, recalling the fire that engulfed the Paris cathedral on April 15, 2019. Experts believe the structure is deteriorating faster than it can be repaired; some systems and components installed centuries ago are still in use; and maintaining its current state alone costs millions of pounds per week.

The Big Ben within the palace complex was covered in scaffolding in recent years, its restoration work is nearing completion, but the main building is the key challenge: it has a floor-plate the size of 16 football pitches, with 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases, 4.8 km of passageways, four floors and 65 different levels. 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.

The extensive report released earlier this year reflects the scale of work needed under two options: to undertake repair while work of both houses of parliament continues inside the palace, or to repair it after emptying it and moving the houses and parliament’s work elsewhere (called ‘full decant’). Its estimate suggests a huge difference in the costs and time needed under the two options: £22 billion and 76 years in the first, and a cost between £7 billion and £13 billion over a period between 12 and 20 years in the second – both estimates without incorporating inflation.

Much debate has happened on how best to repair the building, but MPs, lords, parliamentary officials and experts continue to be divided on how best to proceed with the work needed. Two bodies were formed in 2020 to deliver the repair and restoration, but they have been abolished by parliamentary authorities and a new approach, mandate and governance structure proposed this year, adding to more indecision and delay.

The uncertainty when and how the work will begin has come in for more criticism by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and MPs. Labour MP Chris Bryant says abolishing the two bodies “smacks of silly political interfering just like in the 19th century. We are wasting money hand over fist and putting a Unesco site at risk”, while Meg Hillier, PAC chair, says the authorities had taken the issues back to the drawing board: “(They have) unilaterally taken this massive, critical project of huge national, historical, cultural and political significance back to the drawing board; reversing decisions by both Houses, with no justification for wrecking the plan that was underway – if tortuously slowly – and no assurance that they can actually deliver the works they now envisage. This cannot be acceptable in anyone’s book”.

Hillier notes that 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, posing a very real risk to health and safety in its current state. The PAC’s latest report calls progress not only unacceptably slow, but the likely start date for major works has been pushed back by many years because of repeated attempts to revisit the basis of the programme. Although some urgent works could be undertaken earlier, there is still no clear indication of when major works may start.

Like much else about Britain’s structures, the palace has a long history. Besides evolving ideas of democracy from the days of the Magna Carta, it has overseen industrial and other revolutions, the high tide of the British Empire, World Wars, decolonisation, and much more. In recent times, it has been burnt down (1834), bombed (1941), and faced terror attack (2017), besides 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, 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.”

Despair and dismay over the uncertainty is clear in the PAC report, when it says that “nearly 200 years ago a fire destroyed part of this building – we do not want it to take another catastrophic incident to finally galvanise action and focus minds.”

- The writer is a senior journalist based in London

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