The new review of the Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal project opens up a range of different outcomes for the future of the building. However, with the alarming state of the Palace not changed by the Coronavirus, the government should not use the pandemic as an excuse to downgrade or delay the much-needed repairs.
Two months ago, I reflected with colleagues on a potential new era for the Restoration and Renewal (R&R) of the Palace of Westminster, as the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body assumed responsibility for the project. That milestone came amid heightened uncertainty for R&R, as ministers were said to be keen to cancel or downgrade the repair programme.
Last month, the Sponsor Body announced a review into R&R to reassess whether ‘full decant’ – the temporary simultaneous relocation of MPs and Lords out of the Palace during the repair work – is “still the ‘best and most cost-effective’ option”.
With recommendations due in the autumn, there seem to be five possible outcomes of the review process:
1. R&R to continue as planned, with full decant
It is only 25 months since both the House of Commons and House of Lords voted to proceed with R&R and full decant, to the surprise of the then-government. Why, then, is this decision being reconsidered already?
In its announcement last month, the Sponsor Body noted that a review of “certain aspects of the programme” was always envisaged after it assumed its responsibilities, but that “given the completely altered political and economic landscape, the review will need to be both deeper and more wide-ranging”. It noted two specific factors:
- the changed political environment (as noted here previously, there has been a substantial loss of support for R&R on the Conservative benches since the 2019 election); and
- the impact of the Coronavirus outbreak (with a major economic downturn likely, with knock-on effects on the public purse, the multi-billion-pound pricetag of the R&R project may appear to be a luxury rather than a necessity).
Given this wider context, continuing with R&R as planned may seem unlikely. But diminishing political support and the Coronavirus crisis do not mean that the Palace is no longer desperately in need of repair. Nor do they mean that there is automatically a better or cheaper solution than full decant.
Given that the review will be assessing the evidence on which past decisions have been made, it is entirely feasible that it will come up with the same answer. The Labour MP Mark Tami, who sits on the Sponsor Body and also served on the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster (which recommended full decant back in 2016), told the BBC:
“I haven’t seen a viable alternative proposal to moving out from the people who are opposed to renewal and restoration. If they have one then we should look at it. We didn’t get to this point where we are now, with the proposals we have, off the top of our heads.”
The independence of the review is key here: it is to be carried out by the Sponsor Body, rather than the government. Even if ministers have a preferred outcome, the Sponsor Body may take a different view. There is precedent here: a recent independent review of HS2 recommended that the project go ahead, despite political opposition. Indeed, the independence of the R&R review may be a way for ministers to ensure that necessary action is taken, while still avoiding any blame for approving the expenditure.
2. R&R to proceed but with no temporary chamber in Richmond House
Continuing with R&R but finding an alternative location for the temporary Commons chamber may be superficially appealing, as it offers a way to avoid the heritage implications of the demolition of Richmond House on Whitehall – a concern for several MPs.
It could be argued that the development of the hybrid Commons chamber and virtual select committees during the Coronavirus pandemic means that less space will be required for decant (although the early curtailment of the hybrid chamber suggests that this might be unlikely to occur under the current Leader of the House). A decision to pursue smaller decant accommodation could, in theory, open up a wider selection of alternative locations for the Commons to sit.
However, the primary appeal of Richmond House has never been its space but its location. Richmond House can be absorbed easily within the existing secure perimeter surrounding the Palace of Westminster and the Northern Estate, allowing MPs to move from their offices to the chamber without exiting the security-controlled area. While there has been no shortage of alternative suggestions (such as a bubble Parliament on Horse Guards Parade, for example), no other building meets the security criteria. In a climate in which MPs regularly deal with death threats, it is hard to see how an alternative building would be approved.
Furthermore, it is not clear that simply moving the temporary Commons chamber elsewhere would guarantee a reprieve for Richmond House. Richmond House will still need to be used to house temporarily the MPs whose current accommodation in the Norman Shaw North and South buildings is awaiting repair, and as a result it will still need major work. A more limited scheme at Richmond House might, however, be a means of avoiding a public inquiry into the current planning application. The application is currently under consideration by Westminster City Council, and a public inquiry would likely incur long and costly delays.
3. R&R to proceed but with only partial decant
Earlier this year, The Times reported that the demolition of Richmond House might be cancelled and a partial decant plan adopted, in which the Commons and Lords chambers would be repaired sequentially, with MPs sitting in the Lords chamber while their own is out of service. It is not clear whether Peers would acquiesce to a lengthy exile from their own chamber.
More significantly, it is not clear whether there is any evidence to counter the conclusion of the Joint Committee in 2016 that partial decant “could turn out to combine the worst of all options”. The Committee warned that the “practical difficulties, as well as the security and health and safety challenges, of even one House operating on the same site as a heavy works zone for several years can scarcely be overstated”.
4. R&R to be replaced with a continuous programme of rolling repairs
The Joint Committee warned that to try to carry out the necessary repair work as a rolling programme would involve some 30 to 40 years of noisy and disruptive work within the Palace, with a high chance of catastrophic failure of the infrastructure before the project is completed. Again, it is hard to see what new evidence will emerge that will make this option feasible.
5. Another review
Any examination of the history of the Palace of Westminster shows that we should not underestimate the likelihood that a proper decision about the building is simply put off. However, there should also be no underestimation of how risky such a choice would be. The chances of a crisis striking the Palace increase each day. This was well-recognised in the announcement of the R&R review, which stated:
“What remains unchanged, however, is that the Palace of Westminster is falling apart faster than it can be repaired. Many features have not been renovated since it was built in the 19th century. The longer the essential work is left, the greater the risk of a catastrophic failure from fire, flooding or falling stones.”
The announcement also stressed the involvement of “infrastructure and programme management experts” in the review. Such expertise will, it must be hoped, mean that this potentially catastrophic outcome is avoided.
The Coronavirus crisis: not an excuse
The Coronavirus outbreak has caused economic and social devastation and loss across the country. As we adjust to new ways of working, it is sensible to reassess major infrastructure projects to see if they are still the right solution for a changed world. Indeed, there is an argument that this would be the perfect point for a major public engagement programme to allow the public to have their say about the future of their Parliament.
However, a government hostile to R&R should not use the pandemic as a convenient excuse to downgrade or delay the much-needed repair programme. Sadly, the risks to life and the economy from the Coronavirus do not cancel out the risks to life and heritage from the dangerously dilapidated Palace of Westminster.
Banner image: ‘Big Ben clock in London maintenance repairs’, © Adobe Stock
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