The House of Commons’ last business before it was controversially prorogued on 9 September was the announcement of Royal Assent to the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019. Just as the UK’s parliamentary democracy was being questioned, a significant step forward was taken to safeguard the building that both houses and symbolises it.
In the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019, Parliament has legislated to commence a major refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster – the Restoration and Renewal (R&R) programme. This work is long-overdue: as discussed previously on this blog, the building is facing an impending crisis, with a high risk of failure of the essential infrastructure, a devastating fire, or flood.
R&R programme governance structure
The Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 formally establishes the governance bodies for the R&R programme. These make up a tripartite system based in part on the structure established for the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games. The governance bodies comprise:
- a Sponsor Body acting as the client;
- a Delivery Authority; and
- an Estimates Commission.
The Sponsor Body has been acting in shadow form since July 2018. It is comprised of a mix of industry and heritage experts (recruited through the public appointments procedure) and parliamentarians (chosen through the ‘usual channels’). It will act as an ‘intelligent client’, overseeing the work of the Delivery Authority.
The Delivery Authority is a company limited by guarantee, now being recruited, which will deliver the R&R programme. The funding for the programme will be reviewed by two members of each House who will make up the Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission. The Estimates Commission will lay the estimate for the project before Parliament each year, for the Commons to approve or reject.
This governance model has been designed to reduce political interference in the R&R programme, while still ensuring accountability to Parliament and the public for the project and its expenditure.
Key amendments during passage of the R&R legislation
Crucially, the R&R Bill was amended in the House of Lords to require the Sponsor Body to have regard to the need to “ensure that the Parliamentary building works are carried out with a view to facilitating improved public engagement with Parliament and participation in the democratic process”. This rectified what was a vital missed opportunity in the original text of the Bill.
The rebuilt Palace will also have to have higher regard for accessibility – another welcome amendment given the woefully poor disabled access for parliamentarians, staff and visitors to Parliament.
Other successful amendments made during the passage of the Bill will require the Sponsor Body to consider:
- the need to ensure that educational and other facilities are provided for visitors to the refurbished building;
- the special architectural, archaeological and historical significance of the Palace of Westminster;
- the need to ensure that opportunities to secure economic or other benefits from the parliamentary building works are available in all areas of the UK; and
- the policy of prospective contractors for any building works relating to employment –including blacklisting.
What happens now?
Business case: 2021 flashpoint?
The new governance bodies will now develop a business case and concept design for the rebuilt Palace. Due to be completed in mid-2021, the case will be need to be approved by MPs and Peers and is likely to be a major flashpoint for the R&R programme. The most-recent cost estimate for the work – £3.5 billion – dates back to 2014 and was provided only on a P50 confidence level (that is, with a 50% likelihood that the actual figure will be higher and a 50% likelihood that it will be lower). The inflationary impact of the delays incurred so far, the deteriorating state of the building, and the heightened security level around Westminster, are all likely to mean that the costs are higher than originally envisaged.
Sustaining political support
In accepting key amendments, and fast-tracking the final stages of the Bill to enable it to pass before prorogation, the government has demonstrated a welcome commitment to protecting the Palace.
However, continued political support can never be guaranteed (particularly given that both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House voted against, when in January 2018 the Commons approved R&R with the full simultaneous decant of MPs and Peers from the Palace; Boris Johnson did not vote on the successful pro-full-decant amendment put forward by Labour’s Meg Hillier, but voted against the main motion as amended; Jacob Rees-Mogg voted against both). The decision to go ahead with a full decant was carried overwhelmingly on Labour votes, with Conservative MPs accounting for only 28% of the votes in favour of the crucial Hillier amendment but 75% of the votes against.
In the short term, R&R is likely to be a factor in the election for the new Speaker of the House of Commons, now scheduled for 4 November 2019. While candidates for the Speakership are rarely judged on their plans for the internal management of the House (despite their crucial role as Chair of the Commons Commission), John Bercow’s replacement will presumably preside over the first sitting of the Commons outside the Palace of Westminster in over 80 years, in 2025 – highlighting the sensitive nature of the R&R programme.
Several of the 10 definite or possible candidates for the Speakership who have emerged so far have previously expressed strong views on R&R, as set out in the table below.
Possible candidates for the Speakership of the House of Commons in 2019 and their views on R&R (as of 18 September)
|Name||Party||Proposals on R&R||Voted for full decant?|
|Sir Henry Bellingham||Con||No public statement||Voted against|
|Chris Bryant||Lab||Strong supporter of R&R. Has cited his chairmanship of the Finance Committee and commitment to achieving value for money in R&R as one of his three pitches for the Speakership||Yes|
|Harriet Harman||Lab||No public statement||Did not vote|
|Meg Hillier||Lab||Strong supporter of R&R. Chaired Public Accounts Committee inquiry recommending full decant, and tabled successful pro-full-decant amendment in the Commons||Yes|
|Sir Lindsay Hoyle||Lab||Supports full decant, but has suggested reconsidering decant accommodation, with MPs to be given a choice of “all the options”, rather than moving to Richmond House as planned||Did not vote (Deputy Speaker)|
|Dame Eleanor Laing||Con||No public statement||Did not vote (Deputy Speaker)|
|Sir Edward Leigh||Con||Against full decant (although supports repairing the Palace). Has heritage concerns about Richmond House demolition and thinks the temporary chamber will be “a great white elephant”||Voted against|
|Shailesh Vara||Con||Has previously opposed full decant||Voted against|
|Sir Charles Walker||Con||No public statement||Voted against|
|Dame Rosie Winterton||Lab||No public statement||Did not vote (Deputy Speaker)|
The column ‘Voted for full decant?’ refers to the January 2018 vote on the pro-full-decant Hillier amendment to the government motion approving R&R. Sources: Chris Bryant - The House magazine; Sir Lindsay Hoyle - The House magazine and Times Red Box; Sir Edward Leigh - The House magazine; Shailesh Vara - Hansard.
Leaving the Palace of Westminster, even temporarily, will inevitably change how the Commons operates. And the new Speaker may end up facing this prospect sooner rather than later. When R&R was being considered by the Lords in 2018, the former Clerk of the House of Commons, Lord Lisvane, noted that decant was not due to start until 2025, and warned that “seven years is a long time for nothing bad to happen”. Since then, the Commons chamber has flooded during a debate, and masonry continues to fall off the building, leading the-then Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, to tell MPs earlier this year that it was only luck that no-one had been killed or seriously injured.
Let’s hope that both this luck and the recent momentum of the R&R programme can continue, in order to safeguard the future of the Palace of Westminster.
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