The proposed multi-billion pound refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster presents a once-in-a-century-and-a-half opportunity to reform the leading institution of our democracy and its environs.
Why we are doing it
The Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal programme offers the nearest we will come to a blank slate for redesigning Parliament and reforming the culture and practice of parliamentary politics.
But if the focus is solely on fixing the roof, re-wiring, removing asbestos and undertaking other essential repairs, a huge opportunity for change will be missed.
Even now that the restoration programme has been considered for years, by a range of different bodies, there has still been little consideration of the wider legacy opportunities that it might deliver, both inside Parliament and out. More radical ideas and plans for Parliament’s environs have been around for two decades, but even these have tended to focus on physical arrangements for Parliament Square; the debate has rarely seen any wider vision for the space. And yet those in charge of the restoration programme have responsibilities not only for the Palace of Westminster but also for the World Heritage Site of which it is part, for the beneficial use of public money and for the health of our democracy.
What we are doing
We undertook a major project leading to a report, ‘A Place for People’, in 2011. As well as conducting desk and archival research, and visiting comparable sites, we held discussion groups and spoke to individuals in Parliament, academia, architecture, archives, art, heritage, the media, and museums and galleries.
Our report argued that the Palace of Westminster and its environs around Parliament Square - with their nexus of Parliament, government, the Church, and the courts - comprise “the constitutional heart of the nation”. We said that the area should be “one of the world’s greatest civic spaces” and “a public space that reflects, shapes and sustains our national identity and democratic culture”; but that it instead constitutes “a national disgrace”.
Among other things, our report proposed:
- Extension of the boundaries of the World Heritage Site
- Reform of the World Heritage Site management structure
- Improved traffic management and part-pedestrianisation of Parliament Square
- Improved information provision, through fixed boards, maps, digital tools, augmented reality, and on-site wardens, all connected to the establishment of walks linking key sites and views in the wider area, including a cultural and heritage corridor from Trafalgar Square to Tate Britain
- The use of Parliament Square for public events related to the UK’s democratic past and present
- The establishment of a visitor facility in Victoria Tower Gardens, to provide for better access - and refreshment and retail services - for visitors to Parliament, and to create a new space for exhibitions and events on democratic themes
- The creation of a Visitors’ Centre for the whole of the World Heritage Site, perhaps in the QEII Conference Centre
- The creation of a standalone website based on the existing ‘Living Heritage’ pages of the Parliament website, and possibly integrated into a new multi-stakeholder website for the World Heritage Site
- Improved digital access to Parliament’s cultural and heritage assets
- The collection and presentation of oral histories relating to Parliament from visitors, parliamentarians and staff
Since publication of our report, we have continued to take opportunities to press the case for using the Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal project as an opportunity to reform both parliamentary practices and public engagement in and around the Palace. We hold events and publish blogposts addressing different aspects of the issue. We regard our work on Westminster Restoration and Renewal as being closely linked to our work on reform of the scrutiny and legislative processes; on the role and work of MPs; and on public engagement, where we have asked questions about public attitudes to the Restoration and Renewal project in our annual Audit of Political Engagement.
Key themes in our ongoing work:
Spatial changes, even modest ones, can have a significant impact on the culture and working practices of an institution. How might Parliament benefit from thinking differently about its use of the estate? What principles should shape change, and how might these be reflected in any redesign of the parliamentary estate? What are the opportunities to create new ‘democratic space’ for enhanced engagement with the public?
The ways in which we communicate and work are changing, so how can the refurbished Parliament be fit for the next generation and beyond? And what can we learn from other parliaments and public and private institutions around the world about how to blend innovation with tradition?
The pace of technological change is rapid, but politics has struggled to keep up. Parliament now has an opportunity not just to catch up but to innovate and experiment – both in any temporary new facility while the Palace of Westminster is out of use, and in the refurbished building itself – so what might that involve?