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Reviewing Restoration and Renewal and planning for a post-pandemic Parliament

4 Dec 2020
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The Coronavirus pandemic has added to the questions surrounding the nature of the Parliament that should emerge from the Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal programme. But, with concerns over the programme's governance and public engagement rising, the report arising from the current review of the programme will not now be published this year.

Dr Alexandra Meakin, Research Associate, Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, University of Sheffield
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Research Associate, Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, University of Sheffield

Dr Alexandra Meakin

Dr Alexandra Meakin
Research Associate, Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, University of Sheffield

Alexandra Meakin is a Research Associate at the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield, and a former Committee Specialist on the House of Commons Public Administration and Transport Committees. Her doctoral research is on the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster and parliamentary governance.

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Across the world parliaments and legislatures – like all organisations – have been forced to make wholesale changes to the way they work as they try to establish Covid-safe environments. The prospect of vaccines may signal a return to some sort of a normal life in 2021, but it is not certain that workplaces will return entirely to pre-pandemic ways. While the shift to new ways of working may have been enforced, organisations are considering which of these changes they may want to keep in a post-pandemic world.

For an institution as steeped in precedent and history as the UK Parliament, the changes seen in 2020 have been dramatic, in both scope and speed. The pandemic has turned on its head what Karen Bradley MP, Chair of the House of Commons Procedure Committee, has described as the principle on which Parliament has operated for centuries: "that its members have to be physically present to participate in its work". While some innovations – such as remote voting – proved to be short-lived, others, such as virtual participation in select committees and the House of Lords, may continue into 'normal times'.

At the same time as Parliament is planning for a medium-term future beyond the pandemic, it must also think about the long term. The Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster, the long-overdue refurbishment of the crumbling Palace, has been tasked with creating a building which could "accommodate the needs of a 21st-century legislature". Work had been due to start in the mid-2020s, but this has been placed into doubt by the launch of a strategic review into the project.

In June, I identified five potential outcomes for the review, which had originally been due to report this autumn. However, as we near the end of 2020, we are no closer to knowing which outcome will occur. The review will not now be considered by the Commissions of the two Houses until later in December, with publication and debate due "early in the new year".

This short delay is understandable, given the scope of the review and the challenges posed by the pandemic. A "further piece of technical work specifically focussing on the replacement and renewal of the mechanical and electrical building services" has also been commissioned to inform the recommendations. It is welcome that the review is thorough in examining the state of the building and potential solutions.

It remains the case, however, that delays are costly. The state of the building is so concerning that the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) recently estimated that every week of failing to tackle the serious threats to the building costs the taxpayer £2 million and places the safety of parliamentarians, staff and visitors to the Palace at risk. The PAC warned that progress "has been unacceptably slow and cannot afford any further delays".

The PAC also cautioned about “excessive political interference” in the R&R programme.

In a letter to the Chief Executives of the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority in July, the Prime Minister requested that the review should reconsider how the R&R programme should be delivered – including new options for decant accommodation in London and also in York, in line with the government’s own plans to establish a 'Government Hub' in the city (and further to reports earlier in 2020 that the Government planned to move the House of Lords there). In a welcome demonstration of independence, the Chief Executives declined the Prime Minister’s request, noting that "the option of locating Parliament outside London has constitutional implications, which makes this a matter for both Houses to determine rather than for our review". This view, they stated, was supported by the Speakers of both Houses.

The Prime Minister's intervention – and its outcome – highlight the difficult political balance that R&R must maintain. The governance structure for the programme was explicitly designed to reduce political interference and micro-managing; but the project remains reliant on the government to fund the work, and on Parliament for political support. Media reports have continued to suggest that the project will be “quietly abandoned” given its likely multi-billion-pound price-tag in a time of economic turmoil.

It is important to note that parliamentary opposition to R&R and decant is concentrated in the part of the Palace with green carpets i.e. the House of Commons. Minutes of September’s meeting of the House of Lords Commission noted the "concern" of Commission members about the scope of the R&R review, and hinted at a potential split between the two Houses:

Commission members expressed concern at the Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority being asked to explore a fundamental review of the delivery strategy for the restoration of the Palace. Members spoke of inappropriate interference, the increasing risk of fire and mechanical and electrical failure and the unnecessary extra expense associated with exploring options which had been examined in detail in the past. There was a discussion about communicating this view to the House of Commons and, possibly, externally.

A divide between the two Houses would be a concern for the project. As discussed at the PAC’s evidence session with the Infrastructure Projects Authority (IPA) at the end of November, R&R does not fit into the usual model of ministerial accountability, and relies on Parliament acting as a single body:

Matthew Vickerstaff, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, IPA: [...] the R and R project is a parliamentary project. It is not a Government project. It reports into the two Houses; therefore, there is no responsible Minister and it will not be in the Government’s major projects portfolio. Dame Cheryl Gillan: That in itself is alarming, because you start to wonder where the buck stops. Matthew Vickerstaff: It stops with Parliament. Dame Cheryl Gillan: Well, it may stop with Parliament, but it is a collective responsibility as opposed to one where we can identify clear lines of responsibility.

A further concern raised by the PAC is about the role of the public in the R&R project. The Committee warned that:

The Sponsor Body has not engaged sufficiently with the public and other Palace users to understand what they want from a modern parliament building […] Active communication with all stakeholders is central to ensuring that the Programme succeeds in delivering both a Parliament that meets the needs of all its users, and a home for British democracy that is fit for the future.

In light of this conclusion, it is concerning that the Strategic Review has not published any of the evidence it has received, or even confirmed the extent to which the public has been involved in the review process. The policy-making process remains opaque: plans for a decant chamber in Richmond House appear in doubt from a vague reference buried in minutes of the House of Commons Commission in September. The extent to which the public would support greater virtual participation by their MPs, as trialled during the pandemic, or other innovations, remains unclear.

As we come to the end of a challenging year, the public must be part of the conversation about their parliamentary building in a post-pandemic world.