Groundhog Day for Restoration and Renewal after the Strategic Review: There is still no alternative

13 Mar 2021
UK Houses of Parliament surrounded by scaffolding. © Zhifei Zhou
UK Houses of Parliament surrounded by scaffolding. © Zhifei Zhou

The Strategic Review of the Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal programme has been published, after 10 months’ work – but political factors mean that implementation of the programme’s main conclusion, that there will be a ‘full decant’ from the building while work takes place, remains in doubt.

Dr Alexandra Meakin, Lecturer in British Politics, University of Leeds
Lecturer in British Politics, University of Leeds

Dr Alexandra Meakin

Dr Alexandra Meakin
Lecturer in British Politics, University of Leeds

Before joining the University of Leeds in 2021 Alexandra was a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Manchester. Her doctoral research, conducted at the University of Sheffield, was on the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster and parliamentary governance. Prior to entering academia, Alex worked for over a decade in Westminster, for select committees in the House of Commons and for MPs.

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As we approach a year of the coronavirus pandemic, the repetitive nature of each day under lockdown has invoked comparisons to the film ‘Groundhog Day’, in which the lead character must experience the same 24 hours on repeat.

In the House of Commons on 11 March 2021, Andrea Leadsom MP could have been excused for checking the date on her calendar. Once again, a report into the state of the Palace of Westminster had found that the only way to fix the perilous state of the building was for all MPs and Peers to move out for the work to be done. And, once again, there are doubts that this very clear finding will be accepted.

The report in question was a Strategic Review of the plans to refurbish the building – known as the Restoration and Renewal (R&R) programme – conducted by the Sponsor Body, the ‘client’ for the R&R project established under the 2019 Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act. The Review was launched in May 2020 with the aim of reconsidering whether ‘full decant’ – the temporary simultaneous relocation of MPs and Lords out of the Palace during the repair work, which was agreed by Parliament in 2018 – was “still the ‘best and most cost-effective’ option”. The terms of reference for the review also cited a worsening economic climate (due to the pandemic) and the substantial changes to the composition of the House of Commons following the 2019 general election as key reasons to reassess the issue.

Several months later than originally planned, the report of the Strategic Review was published on 11 March. It concluded that the full decant was indeed necessary:

“even a ‘Do Minimum’ scope for the R&R works is significant enough to involve major disruption to Parliament and take several years to deliver, and will require a period when the Palace is not occupied.”

This conclusion was supported by “a piece of independent expert advice … on whether it is technically possible to renew the building services in the Palace without a full decant”, commissioned from Buro Happold, a specialist mechanical and electrical (M&E) engineering company. This found that:

“whilst it is technically possible to deliver the essential mechanical and electrical systems renewal without fully vacating the Palace, doing so would import an “extraordinary level of risk”, with works estimated to cost far more compared to full vacation of the Palace, take decades to deliver, and cause very significant disruption to the operation of Parliament.”

With decant thus unavoidable, the report further endorsed the previously-chosen locations for the temporary accommodation: Richmond House for the Commons and the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre for the Lords. The costs of fitting-out these buildings with chambers, committee rooms and offices have been redacted in the report, although it states that these locations “remain the best value options”. No reason is given for the redaction.

On 11 March, shortly after the Strategic Review report was published, former Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom MP used the House’s weekly Business Questions slot to press her successor in that role, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, on the issue:

Andrea Leadsom: My right hon. Friend will see that the restoration and renewal sponsor body’s latest report, out today, recommends exactly the same as the report in 2014 and the report in 2016, and draws the same conclusion as the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill that I introduced in 2018. My right hon Friend must surely see that the risks of a major asbestos leak, a sewage failure, or, indeed, a devastating fire, such as we saw at Notre Dame, are very high and remain very high, and we have virtually no contingency for this place. My personal motto is JFDI, and I would like to offer that to my right hon. Friend to gird his loins to make some progress.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: […] My right hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of restoration and renewal. It is crucial that this building has its wiring improved and the basic services made effective. On the fire safety issue, a considerable amount of work has been done; the new fire safety system is being tested currently, and I am getting regular reports on that. It is a mist system with significant excess capacity, which means that there is the prospect of extending it further. I am glad to say that that has made considerable progress since my right hon. Friend was the Leader of the House.

Regardless of all these reports, regardless of what people have suggested, this has to get value for money for the taxpayer. We have suddenly heard talk of costs of £10 billion to £20 billion coming up. We cannot say that to our constituents. We in this House have the responsibility to protect taxpayers’ money. The other place, it must be remembered, does not. We are responsible, responsive and answerable to our constituents. Yes, we need to redo the wiring. Yes, we need to ensure that this place is safe and secure, but we must not turn this House of Commons into Disneyland.

The response of the Commons Leader appeared to dismiss both the content of the Strategic Review report and his predecessor’s plea for urgency.

The “considerable progress” on fire safety is certainly welcome, but the reference implied that Ms Leadsom’s warnings were out of date, while failing to acknowledge the fact that, as the Strategic Review states: “the building is now deteriorating faster that [sic] it can be fixed through ongoing maintenance and individual improvement works”.

Even more concerning was the Leader of the House’s reference to “costs of £10 billion to £20 billion”. These figures do not appear in the Strategic Review, which does not provide an estimate of the final costs. The Leader’s figures also cannot be credited to any other official source.

The only public indication of potential costs for R&R are the “estimates of the broad orders of magnitude” made in 2014. These suggested that the costs of the programme, with full decant, would be in the region of £3.8 billion (with a hefty 50% confidence interval).

While it is likely that this figure has risen substantially in the intervening years, the budget for R&R is not due to be confirmed until it is presented to Parliament in 2022. If the Leader of the Commons believes the £10-£20 billion figure to be sufficiently credible to be cited on the floor of the House, it is presumably among those redacted in the Sponsor Body’s published report. In this case, it would surely be Mr Rees-Mogg’s duty to share this information, and the breakdown of prospective costs underlying the headline figures, in order to ensure a transparent and well-informed debate. If the £10-20 billion figure is not among those redacted from the published Strategic Review report, then what is its origin, what evidence underpins it and why is the Leader of the House citing it from the despatch box?

Crucially, the Leader’s answer to Ms Leadsom also made clear the massive caveat in his commitment to make the Palace safe and secure, namely that the commitment appears to apply unless the work requires a lengthy decant from the building, or the cost is higher than he deems reasonable. This is linked to a kind of magical thinking, as encapsulated by Sir David Amess MP when R&R was discussed in the Commons in 2020, when he proclaimed that “surely to goodness, in this day and age, we could get the work done in half the time that has been forecast” – as if the years of delay in repairing the Palace should have made the necessary work cheaper and quicker, when in fact the opposite is true: the delays have added billions to the cost and years to the timescales.

So, what happens next?

Both Houses of Parliament are due to debate the Strategic Review report, although in the Commons this will depend on the Leader of the House allocating the necessary time.

This debate may show whether the view of the House has changed substantially since the 2018 commitment to full decant. While there are indications that the Leader’s opposition to full decant is shared by some of the 2019 intake of Conservative MPs, it is not clear how widespread this view is across all parties and Members. While 63 MPs made submissions to the Strategic Review, the Sponsor Body chose to publish only a summary of the submissions and did not identify by name those individuals or organisations who contributed.

(The Hansard Society was among those extra-parliamentary stakeholders to submit evidence. In the interests of transparency, this has now been published by the Society. As the co-author – with Dr Alexandra Anderson of the University of Sheffield – of another submission, I would have been happy for my evidence to be made public.)

In the meantime, the Sponsor Body will continue to draw up an Outline Business Case (OBC) for the R&R project. The OBC will present multiple options, including “‘Do Minimum’, ‘Do Maximum’ and one or two options derived from an analytical process to determine best value outcomes”.

It will further consider a “phased approach” to the works, in order to minimise the length of the decant. This option may be traced to a request from the House of Commons Commission in December 2020 to “carry out further work to fully understand the costs, time and other implications of carrying out the necessary works whilst a presence was maintained in the Palace”. In a response to Sir Edward Leigh MP in the Commons on 11 March, the Leader of the House implied that MPs could stay in the Palace during R&R by putting up with “some discomfort” and “occasionally, a little bit of banging and noise being made”. This answer neglected to acknowledge that staying in the building would involve not just noise but also exposure to asbestos, and that the risk would not be limited to MPs but would extend to their staff, parliamentary staff and any members of the public visiting the building, meeting with their representatives or giving evidence to committees.

The difficult truth remains the same as it was in 2007, 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018: not wanting to spend money on the Palace of Westminster will not make the essential repairs cheaper or, indeed, less essential.

But MPs like Ms Leadsom, who long ago accepted this reality, must continue to make this case, day after day. In the Commons, the Leader referred to the idea of spending money on temporary chambers as “being for the birds”. The same could be said for continuing to insist that the Palace can be made safe without committing to the necessary work, and seeking yet more and more reviews in the hope of finding a new answer.

Meakin, A. (2021), Groundhog Day for Restoration and Renewal after the Strategic Review: There is still no alternative, (Hansard Society: London)

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