Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster: New era, same debates

10 Dec 2022

In coming days Parliament is due formally to enable the abolition of the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, the previous independent client body for Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal (R&R). But, as parliamentarians overturn the R&R governance structures and take back control of the project, the debate is still the same: stuck on the question of vacating the Palace during the works.

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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On 12 and 13 December, respectively, the House of Commons and House of Lords are due to debate the Statutory Instrument (SI) which formally abolishes the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, the independent client body for the Restoration and Renewal (R&R) of the Palace of Westminster which was established under the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019. Once the SI has then been approved by the two Houses, it is due to enter into force on 1 January 2023.

The SI will give effect to the decision made by MPs and Peers in July 2022 to change the governance arrangements for the R&R project — less than three years after they came into existence. After the period in which the Sponsor Body was the project client, the reform will bring the project back under the overall control of parliamentarians. Specifically, the project client is now a new Client Board, established in September 2022, comprising members of the Commissions of the two Houses and chaired by the House of Commons Speaker. Day-to-day leadership of the project is to pass to a new R&R Programme Board, appointments to which may be in place by the end of the year (but had been due in November).

Together with the new governance arrangements, MPs and Peers in July also agreed a new approach to R&R, as proposed by the Commons’ and Lords’ Commissions. This reopens the debate about the extent to which the building will need to be emptied to allow the works to take place — almost five years after the original decision was taken in January 2018 to move out completely (the ‘full decant’ option).

The question of decant was one of the drivers for the change in governance approach. At the request of the House of Commons Commission — and at a cost of £5 million — in 2020-21 the Sponsor Body considered whether it would be possible for there to be a “continued presence” of MPs within the Palace during the works. The Sponsor Body found that such an arrangement could increase the timescale of the work by as much as 48 years (to a total of 76 years) and increase the cost by 180% to £22 billion. In contrast, R&R with full decant would be far cheaper and quicker, costing £7-13 billion and taking up to 28 years. A week after the Commons Commission considered the Sponsor Body’s report in January 2022, it met again to propose the abolition of the Body.

The prospect of having to leave the Palace for two decades was too much for the then-Leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees Mogg MP, who told the House in February: “it seems to me that if we were to have a decant of 20 years, we would never come back to this Palace”. The Commissions of both Houses would later conclude that “confidence within Parliament in the existing governance structure had been lost to such an extent that change is necessary”.

The new R&R Client Board has already started meeting, with 24 members from across the two Commissions. It is due to have a business case for the R&R project ready for approval in 2023 — a timescale which would have been challenging even without the upheaval of 2022.

The challenge for the business case is immense: how to reconcile the need for major works to the Palace with a recognition of MPs’ clear unwillingness to move out into temporary accommodation.

Potential solutions, in the form of partial decant (for example, MPs moving into the House of Lords while the Commons is refurbished), have been often suggested; but these fail to take into account the fact that the building work required is far more than just cosmetic changes to the Commons Chamber and will require access to the basement spanning the full length of the Palace. With respect to the possibility of MPs staying in the Palace, even to a limited extent, in evidence to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in March 2022 Clerk of the Commons Dr John Benger encouraged MPs to:

“… think what that would […] look like. It is almost like a polytunnel from the Northern Estate, Portcullis House and Norman Shaw North, where all the Members are, to this small, protected area […] with a building site all around it. That would carry an enormous amount of risk, and potentially cost as well.”

Buro Happold, a specialist mechanical and electrical (M&E) engineering company which was commissioned by the Sponsor Body to provide independent research in 2021, was reported by the Sponsor Body as concluding similarly 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.”

Despite this evidence, the current Leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt MP, has indicated her hope that parliamentarians could move out of “one part of the building for a short period of time, rather than a very expensive programme to recreate a Chamber”. In evidence to the Commons Procedure Committee in November 2022, Ms Mordaunt appeared to suggest that MPs could meet remotely in September each year to allow for longer R&R access to the Palace during the summers, enabling more work to take place:

“we are taking a different approach to R and R. We are being much more practically focused on packages of work that need to be done and being smarter about how we fit those in to avoid — in my view — long, unnecessary and costly decants from the building. Technology has a role to play in that, as I said. You can use the September recess, but if you were also using technology, you could still be doing something useful, such as holding debates and so forth. We have all sorts of options. What we need to know is what people think about the experience we had using that technology.”

This could be promising, although it would require MPs to commit to radical changes in the way in which they use technology, through remote voting and virtual participation — far beyond that which was grudgingly permitted by Ms Mordaunt’s predecessors for an extremely limited period during the Covid pandemic. It is also not clear if an extra four or five weeks of recess time each year could substitute for a decade-long uninterrupted period of access to the basement.

While we wait for a solution to be found, it is hard to escape the conclusion that we are back to the same debates about R&R which took place in 2018, 2016, and 2015 — which all ended up in recognition that full decant would be the cheapest, quickest, and least risky way to deliver the necessary works. Chris Grayling MP, a former Leader of the Commons, suggested in the House's July 2022 debate that we have seen “seven years of failure”, adding:

“We went through all this seven years ago. It is hugely frustrating to me that we are here seven years later still working out what to do about it.”

This frustration was shared by the PAC, which warned in June 2022 that:

“The considerable uncertainty facing the [R&R] Programme has caused a loss of the critical skills needed to develop the business case, created delays and increased the risk of nugatory spending and health and safety incidents.”

The PAC also found that “there has been a failure of transparency and accountability over work to restore and renew the Palace”. Disappointingly, the Commons Commission rejected the PAC’s recommendation to improve transparency by placing in the Commons Library “all minutes and advice documents supporting decisions relating to the programme, as well as the interdependent and wider works across the Parliamentary Estate”. In justification of its decision, the Commission declared that the “recently established R&R Client Board was publishing its minutes”, a statement that so far is inaccurate, given that only brief agendas have been published by the Client Board to date.

The R&R Client Board is to answer parliamentarians’ questions through Sir Charles Walker MP, representing the House of Commons Commission, in the Commons; and the Senior Deputy Speaker and House of Lords Commission Member Lord Gardiner of Kimble in the Lords.

As we come to the end of 2022, therefore, it remains unclear when the much-needed repairs to the Palace will start, the form they will take, and how much they will cost — and there is little clarity over how these decisions will be taken. In the Commons debate on the R&R governance structure in July 2022, Mark Tami MP told the House:

“It is four and a half years since we reached our decision and I think it has been said that it is seven years since we started the whole process, and where are we? Nowhere. We are back where we started.”

Indeed, even though the governance structures may change after the coming days’ formal decisions, as parliamentarians continue to dispute the need to move out of the Palace while the very fabric of the building around them continues to deteriorate it seems that a new era starts but the debates remain the same.

Meakin, A. (2022), Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster: New era, same debates (Hansard Society: London)

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