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Restoration and Renewal: why MPs should stick with decant and focus on the long-term legacy

20 May 2021

On 20 May 2021 MPs will debate the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster, laying down a marker about their future expectations for the project. We set out why MPs should support decant and focus on the long-term legacy.

Dr Ruth Fox, Director , Hansard Society
Director , Hansard Society

Dr Ruth Fox

Dr Ruth Fox
Director , Hansard Society

Ruth is responsible for the strategic direction and performance of the Society and leads its research programme. She has appeared before more than a dozen parliamentary select committees and inquiries, and regularly contributes to a wide range of current affairs programmes on radio and television, commentating on parliamentary process and political reform.

In 2012 she served as adviser to the independent Commission on Political and Democratic Reform in Gibraltar, and in 2013 as an independent member of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee Review Group. Prior to joining the Society in 2008, she was head of research and communications for a Labour MP and Minister and ran his general election campaigns in 2001 and 2005 in a key marginal constituency.

In 2004 she worked for Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign in the battleground state of Florida. In 1999-2001 she worked as a Client Manager and historical adviser at the Public Record Office (now the National Archives), after being awarded a PhD in political history (on the electoral strategy and philosophy of the Liberal Party 1970-1983) from the University of Leeds, where she also taught Modern European History and Contemporary International Politics.

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It is hard to disagree with Mr Rees-Mogg's three tests: they are clearly necessary. However, on their own they are an insufficient basis for the project. In particular, the notion of ‘value for money’ is not straightforward and cannot be applied until after other decisions vital for the project – about its scope and ambition – have been taken. As things stand, the risk is that ‘value for money’ is simply used as the cover for substantive decisions to scale back the project. What, for example, is the trade-off between safety, speed and savings in making a ‘value for money’ calculation? What is the order of priorities: minimising the overall costs, minimising the time MPs spend out of the building, minimising the risks to the safety of everyone on the Palace estate, or minimising the risk of catastrophic failure and permanent loss of the building?

It is widely accepted that doing nothing is not an option. The Palace of Westminster is in such a state of disrepair that if restoration work is not undertaken soon, major and irreversible damage could be done to what is not just our national legislature but a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a globally recognised symbol of democracy. Significant restoration work – and therefore cost – would be required even if the Palace were abandoned in favour of a new location for Parliament, because the government has a legal duty to maintain the World Heritage Site. In 2016, after a detailed analysis of the situation, the Joint Committee on the Restoration and Renewal of Parliament recommended that MPs and Peers leave the building simultaneously – ‘decant’ fully to temporary accommodation in Richmond House on Whitehall and the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre off Parliament Square, respectively – to enable the vital restoration works to proceed. This recommendation was endorsed by MPs when they voted on the matter in 2018. Parliament then legislated the following year – in the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 – to establish an independent governance structure for the project, based around a Sponsor Body. Given that Restoration and Renewal has to happen, Parliament should stick by the decisions taken in 2018 and 2019. Full decant from the Palace of Westminster is still the cheapest, safest and quickest option available.

Richmond House, Whitehall.: the proposed decant location for the House of Commons
Richmond House, Whitehall.: the proposed decant location for the House of Commons

As part of the recent Strategic Review it conducted of the R&R programme, the Sponsor Body commissioned an independent specialist study to look at whether it would be "technically possible to renew the building services in the Palace without a full decant". The report, by Buro Happold, a specialist mechanical and electrical engineering company, found 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.”

Reversing the decision made by MPs in 2018 will result in further delay, increasing the costs of the programme and heightening the risks to the building and those who work and visit there. Delays to restoration of the building as a result of political prevarication over the last 15 years have proven expensive. In the

eight years between 2007-08 and 2014-15, £263.3 million was spent on maintenance of the Palace, at an annual average of £33 million. In the four years that followed (2015-16 to 2018-19), the amount spent was £369 million, or an average of £92 million a year. A £1 billion repair backlog remains. The Strategic Review found that "the building is now deteriorating faster that [sic] it can be fixed through ongoing maintenance and individual improvement works". There have been major recent improvements to fire safety; but these have reduced, not eliminated, the risk of a catastrophic fire, and the National Audit Office has reported a 50% chance of a mechanical and electrical (M&E) failure by 2025.

The governance arrangements for the project will also be damaged if the decant decision is reversed. Parliament legislated to set up independent governance bodies – the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body and the R&R Delivery Authority – in order to reduce the prospect of political interference in, and micro-management of, the R&R programme. If Ministers and MPs simply ignore the independent expert body’s recommendation for a full decant then the credibility of Parliament as commissioner of the project will be fatally undermined. Timely and sustainable decision-making is vital for the success of the project. The lifespan of the R&R project is longer than most ministerial careers, and most MPs' time in Parliament. House of Commons Library research shows that 74% of current MPs have been elected since 2010, and 54% were first elected in 2015 or later. If such rates of political attrition continue, only a minority of current MPs will still be in post when the R&R project finishes in the mid-2030s, the shortest possible timescale for completion. It is therefore essential that decisions are not subject to change every time there is ministerial reshuffle or an election.

Sticking by the full decant decision does not necessarily dictate that other costs need be maximal: there are still decisions which have significant cost implications that need to be taken.

First, there is the scope of the work. Do Members support Jacob Rees-Mogg’s 'minimal fix' plan: that the project should be limited to replacing failing mechanical and engineering equipment, removing asbestos, and fixing the roof? No-one disputes that the work will be eye-wateringly expensive; at issue is the balance to be struck between work that is identified as essential and further ‘value-added’ improvements that might be made.

If the Palace of Westminster is to function as a working legislature for another century, surely consideration needs to be given to ways in which the building can be future-proofed, not least in relation to technology requirements?

What do politicians, parliamentary staff and the public want from a modern, effective and functional 21st-century Parliament?

Second, the specifications for the decant accommodation need to be agreed: should the current facilities in the Palace – particularly the Chamber and division lobbies – be replicated in Richmond House and the QEII Centre, or should a simpler, more basic approach be taken? The case for like-for-like provision was poor prior to the pandemic; in the context of the post-Covid-19 economic climate, and in light of the opportunities for innovation provided by the virtual Parliament, it is non-existent. However, Members still need to determine priorities for the decant space. For example, what balance should be struck between reducing costs and providing facilities for potentially up to two full-term parliaments that enable Members to carry out effectively their functions as legislators and scrutineers? Is a full-size Chamber needed when the current one is only really ever full for a few set-piece events, primarily Prime Minister’s Questions, the budget and the Queen’s Speech? Might the option of ongoing hybrid proceedings relieve the pressure on space, in which case should greater emphasis be placed on broadcasting and digital provision on site? Are division lobbies needed at all if Members of both Houses can vote using an electronic app? How many committee rooms are needed when virtual evidence sessions have been such a success? Should greater focus be placed on providing informal meeting space and areas for engagement with the public within the decant buildings? Such questions need to be carefully considered. But what will be the mechanism for doing so, how will the findings be fed into the work of the Sponsor Body, and how will decisions be made? At present there is a lack of transparency about these aspects of the decision-making process.

Both these issues – the specification for the decant accommodation and for the post-R&R Palace – are linked to what is wanted, if anything, in terms of a project legacy. As important as they will be, the 'legacy opportunities' of R&R that have been discussed to date appear to stretch no further than improvements to disability access on the parliamentary estate and an apprenticeship programme to benefit young people across the UK. Surely these ought to be the floor, not the ceiling, of ambition for the project? But as long as MPs continue going round in circles about the decant decision, the wider opportunities the project presents in terms of 'Renewal' as well as 'Restoration' are not being considered. The project is debated entirely through the prism of 'cost' and 'risk', with little thought given to 'potential' and 'opportunity'. Yet the refurbishment of the Palace presents a once-in-a-150-year opportunity to transform the leading institution of our democracy and its environs, revitalising the democratic space to support a legislature fit for the 21st century. It is a significant opportunity to make a major national statement about the future of our democracy and the state of our public realm.

There is understandable concern that the decant buildings – Richmond House and the QEII Conference Centre – will be expensive 'white elephants'. But this need not be so if the project is injected with some imagination and ambition. Ten years ago, the Hansard Society published a report – A Place for People: Proposals for Enhancing Visitor Engagement with Parliament’s Environs – which put forward a range of ideas to upgrade the role of Parliament Square and significantly enhance the visitor experience at Westminster. Our report proposed the creation of a World Heritage Site Visitor Centre in the QEII Conference Centre.

Westminster is an iconic international attraction: it deserves a facility of international standing to serve those who visit each year. The Centre could be developed, after Parliament is back in the Palace, to provide exhibition and interpretation space focusing on the history and constitutional relationships of the institutions that border Parliament Square: Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the Supreme Court and Whitehall. Dedicated exhibition space could explain the work and function of Parliament and its Members; the Centre could incorporate a museum-style facility focused on the history of the British premiership. Parliament’s art and archival collections could at last be made properly accessible to the public. Rather than returning to Victoria Tower, the archives could be moved to a dedicated space in the Centre, providing a base for future parliamentary scholarship. Refreshment and retail facilities, event and media space would provide an income stream.

The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster: the proposed decant location for the House of Lords
The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster: the proposed decant location for the House of Lords

Richmond House could become a new Education Centre for Parliament. The current Education Centre location in Victoria Tower Gardens is only temporary, and a permanent long-term arrangement will be needed. The location of the proposed decant venues, beyond the current parliamentary estate perimeter, also highlights the opportunity to unlock the potential of Parliament Square, not least through part-pedestrianisation. R&R presents a vital opportunity to integrate the renewal of the Palace into a more ambitious and creative re-think of the purpose of the surrounding area. Unlocking the potential of Parliament’s environs should be an integral part of the R&R project, to deliver a strong legacy in terms of public appreciation of and engagement with the site and its historical and constitutional significance, as well as enhanced attractiveness to visitors. At present, there is little evidence of joined-up thinking even to link R&R to related existing projects affecting Parliament’s environs, such as the future of the proposed Holocaust Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens. A masterplan is sorely needed.

Some Members have previously expressed concern about the symbolic and reputational implications of MPs vacating the Palace of Westminster for a lengthy period. But the R&R project is unprecedented in scale. It will be “the most complex renovation programme of any single building the UK has ever seen" and will be the biggest heritage restoration project of its kind anywhere in the world. Moving out to facilitate the work – to preserve the premier institution of our democracy for generations to come – will send a confident and powerful message all of its own. In contrast, choosing to stay *in situ* and run our national legislature in the middle of a building site for a decade or more will send out an entirely different and less compelling message about the extent to which we truly cherish our parliamentary democracy.

Fox, R. (2021), Restoration and Renewal: why MPs should stick with decant and focus on the long-term legacy (Hansard Society: London)

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