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£4bn Parliament repair scheme essential and 'not a vanity project'

Published 08/09/2016

A study by Deloitte last year highlighted the appalling condition of the Palace of Westminster
A study by Deloitte last year highlighted the appalling condition of the Palace of Westminster

A multibillion-pound scheme to repair the Palace of Westminster is not a "vanity project" and the work needs to be carried out to save the historic building from disaster, MPs and peers have insisted.

The Houses of Parliament face a growing risk of a "catastrophic event" unless essential works are carried out to renovate the ageing mechanical and electrical services buried inside the building, which will require both the Commons and Lords to move out for up to eight years.

The Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster warned that the decision on how to repair Parliament could not be delayed any further and suggested that the renovations could start in 2023.

The proposals, which would have to be approved by Parliament and the Government, could see a temporary Commons chamber in the courtyard of the Department of Health's current offices in Whitehall, while the Lords would sit in the nearby Queen Elizabeth II conference centre.

A study by Deloitte last year highlighted the appalling condition of the Palace, with potentially deadly fire risks, collapsing roofs, crumbling walls, leaking pipes and large quantities of asbestos.

The committee rejected the more expensive options of trying to carry out repair work without leaving the building, or completing the renovations in stages with each chamber moving out in turn.

The "full decant" option, with both Houses moving out temporarily, was estimated by Deloitte to cost between £3 billion and £4.3 billion, with the most likely figure being around £3.5 billion and could take between five and eight years.

The committee, chaired by Cabinet minister Chris Grayling and former Cabinet colleague Baroness Stowell, also dismissed the idea of moving Parliament out of Westminster partly because of the cost of moving Government buildings out of London.

The report said: "The Palace of Westminster, a masterpiece of Victorian and medieval architecture and engineering, faces an impending crisis which we cannot responsibly ignore.

"It is impossible to say when this will happen, but there is a substantial and growing risk of either a single, catastrophic event, such as a major fire, or a succession of incremental failures in essential systems which would lead to Parliament no longer being able to occupy the Palace."

The joint committee's report said that, although there was "extensive erosion and water damage" to the Palace of Westminster, there was no risk of the building collapsing.

But there were major problems with the services and utilities which had been installed in the building, many of which had reached the end of their working life in the 1970s and 1980s.

"The patch-and-mend approach which has seen the building through the decades since then is no longer sustainable," the report said."Intervention on a much larger scale is now required.

"Unless an intensive programme of major remedial work is undertaken soon, it is likely that the building will become uninhabitable."

Labour committee member Chris Bryant said: "This is certainly not a vanity project of any kind."

He said the committee did not want to "spend a single penny more than necessary" but the Palace is a "part of our national heritage".

Illustrating the challenges involved in the project, he said there are 3,800 brass windows in the building which were "cutting-edge technology" in the 19th century when they were installed.

He added: "We need to work on making them work in the future, we are not going to be suddenly installing windows from Anglian - nothing against Anglian, of course."

Baroness Stowell acknowledged concerns about the high cost of the project: "It is a hard sell, I absolutely accept that. This is a big decision, it's lots of money. But it is also an opportunity to preserve something which is really important to us as a nation."

The proposals set out by the committee, if approved by Parliament and the Government, would set up a "sponsor board" made up of MPs, peers, ministers and possibly outside experts which would oversee the work of a delivery authority responsible for the project.

The plan, similar to that behind the 2012 Olympics, would see the delivery authority produce a detailed business case which would then allow the final budget to be set.

Theresa May is yet to see the report, Downing Street said.

The Prime Minister's official spokeswoman said: "The PM's view is that we should carefully consider the proposals and will want to hear the views of MPs before deciding on the direction.

"We will need to look at the way forward in discussion with Parliament."

Former Lords leader Lady Stowell said: "I expect the Government to take its lead from Parliament. What I think is perfectly reasonable is for the Government to stand back and wait for Parliament to express its view on what is a national building and then give it's view."

Downing Street declined to say how long Mrs May would take to consider her response to the report.

"There's no timescale," said a Number 10 spokesman. "It will be considered appropriately, properly and a response delivered in due course."

The spokesman said Mrs May would be determined to ensure value for money on a project that will run into billions of pounds of taxpayers' money.

"Whatever the cost is, clearly it will come out of central funds, and that's why it's right that time is taken to consider this report and make sure we make the right decision," he said.

"It's obviously crucial we get the most cost-effective solution that we can and ensure best value for money for the taxpayer while also preserving one of the most iconic landmarks in Britain."

He added: "It's worth pointing out that what we are talking about is protecting one of our most tre asured buildings, an internationally recognised landmark, and it's right that we protect a building which has such important historic value."

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