There remains no alternative to ‘full decant’ for Restoration and Renewal that is safer or more cost-effective. Developments since both Houses agreed full decant in 2018, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, reinforce the longstanding Hansard Society approach to R&R: it must be ambitious, creative and inclusive and encompass a new vision for Parliament’s environs.
– Full submission, made on 7 August, 2020, to the Strategic Review of the Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal Programme. Published, for the first time, here on 13 March, 2021, following publication of the Strategic Review report –
Refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster 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.
Although the political and economic climate has changed since both Houses backed full decant in 2018, particularly in the last year, none of the relevant developments alters the fact that the Palace continues to deteriorate faster than it can be repaired.
The safest, most efficient and most cost-effective means of delivering R&R appears still to be the proposed full decant. But improvements can be made: the recent use of the ‘virtual Parliament’ demonstrates the viability of potential cost savings through greater use of technology and abandonment of the ‘like-for-like’ design brief for the decant buildings.
Restoration and Renewal should be more than a heritage restoration project; but greater consideration of what ‘renewal’ and ‘legacy’ might mean is required. However, some of the potential benefits of the R&R project are intangible and as such do not lend themselves to a conventional cost-benefit economic valuation model.
Unlocking the potential of Parliament’s environs should be an integral part of the R&R project, in order to deliver a strong positive legacy. There have been recent developments in respect of Parliament Square that need to be taken into account and integrated into future planning. The Hansard Society has previously proposed that the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre could be adapted as a Westminster World Heritage Site Visitor Centre to convey the rich complexity of the UK’s democratic story through the institutions in Parliament Square.
A. How should developments since the previous conclusions were drawn by the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster in 2016 – political, economic, commercial, social, technological, environmental or other – affect how the Houses of Parliament are restored and renewed?
1. The risk to the Palace of Westminster remains as high, if not higher, today as it was when the Restoration and Renewal (R&R) options appraisal was produced in 2015 and the full decant model was approved in 2018. None of the developments highlighted in this submission alters the fundamental fact that the Palace continues to deteriorate faster than it can be repaired and a piecemeal, ‘make do and mend’, approach is no longer adequate to address the scale of the problems. For example:
- a. the National Audit Office has highlighted that there is a 50% risk of mechanical and engineering failure by 2025 which is the earliest scheduled date to decant both Houses; and
- b. there is an ever-present risk of fire and sewage and water leaks which could at best result in the closure of the parliamentary estate for a considerable period of time and at worst destroy the building.
2. The result of the 2019 general election means that the R&R project is now operating in an entirely different political environment to that faced in 2018. Some of the MPs who voted to support a full decant in 2018 are no longer in Parliament, and there are 140 new MPs who have little knowledge and experience of the R&R project and indeed only limited experience of ‘normal’ life on the parliamentary estate, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
3.MPs are important stakeholders in the R&R project but their importance should be set in context. The Palace belongs to all of us; MPs are merely temporary users and part-custodians of the building and its future:
- a. House of Commons Library research shows that 74% of all current MPs have been elected since 2010, and 54% were first elected in 2015 or later. If such rates of political attrition were to continue, only a minority of current MPs would be in office when the R&R project, as currently configured, is completed in the mid-2030s. While the views of this cohort of MPs must be taken into account (not least as they must vote for and continue to support the project and its financing), the self-interested desire of some Members to stay in situ on the parliamentary estate should not act as a block on progress.
- b. Decision-making about the future of the project must bear in mind the safety and workplace needs of the 7,500+ people who work on the parliamentary estate and the 1 million visitors each year, not just the needs and interests of 650 MPs.
4. In recent years, and particularly since the 2016 EU referendum, MPs have faced increasing levels of personal threat and abuse both in person and on social media. MPs and journalists have also periodically faced physical threats and intimidation on Abingdon Green.
5. Most worryingly, the Palace of Westminster has been subject to direct terrorist attack. Following the March 2017 Westminster Bridge attack, a security review was instituted. The ‘Perimeter Security Review’, which reported in September 2019, strengthens the case for accommodating MPs in a single, secure site, as envisaged in the Richmond House/Northern Estate decant model.
6. If a partial decant model is to be considered anew, it must address the security risks: how would the security of MPs, staff, media and R&R contractors working on the estate be met in a situation in which the facilities for MPs were split in half by a building site? For example, how would MPs, staff and members of the public move safely between the current House of Lords chamber and the meeting room/office complex in Portcullis House and the Northern Estate if they could not walk directly from one to the other because the House of Commons area was being renovated?
Coronavirus pandemic and its implications for Parliament’s decant and post-decant spaces
7. The Coronavirus pandemic demonstrated the agility and adaptability of both Houses, forcing them to make changes to their ways of working at an unprecedented pace and scale. However, it also demonstrated the limitations of previous contingency planning and risk management.
8. Although the House of Commons has returned to physical sittings, its mode of operation is abnormal. The House of Commons is a shadow of its normal self when only 50 MPs can be in the Chamber at any one time, as a result of social distancing requirements.
9. Parliament has not really begun to think about the medium- and long-term consequences for the operation of both Chambers if social distancing requirements cannot be relaxed in the absence of a Coronavirus vaccine. What if a socially distanced Chamber configuration must become the new ‘normal’, potentially for years to come?
10. It is far too early to know what course the pandemic may take in the months and years ahead, but in drawing-up design and cost assessments for the future of R&R it may be prudent to develop two models in parallel:
- a. a design and cost model in the event that Parliament can return to its normal mode of operation with both Houses meeting physically without social distancing; and
- b. a model in the event that social distancing is required for the foreseeable future.
11. In the event that the latter scenario prevails, plans for the decant venues of Richmond House and the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre may need to be revisited. Specifically, the design and layout of the Chambers may need to be completely revised, for it would surely not be sensible to replicate the House of Commons Chamber on a like-for-like basis if it can only accommodate 50 socially distanced MPs at a time.
12. Similarly, a partial decant model, in which the Commons moved into the Lords Chamber, would need to assess how many MPs could reasonably sit in that Chamber and observe social distancing requirements. Would a partial decant into a Chamber that can accommodate less than 10% of MPs at any one time be a more satisfactory outcome – in terms of the effectiveness of the legislature – than a Chamber in Richmond House specifically designed to take account of social distancing?
The ‘Good Parliament’ Report
13. In July 2016 Professor Sarah Childs published the Good Parliament report setting out a range of recommendations that, if implemented, would see the House of Commons become “a globally recognised ‘best practice’ Diversity Sensitive Parliament”. Professor Childs stressed that the principles of representation and inclusion must remain firmly in the sights of the R&R governance bodies.
14. Among the recommendations in that report, Professor Childs specifically suggested that new layouts of the Chamber could be trialled in the decant venue during the R&R project. The report also highlighted the need to “provide flexible committee and other meeting rooms and provide for inclusionary social spaces in a restored Palace”.
Parliament Square Streetscape Project
15. The area immediately outside Parliament – Parliament Square and its environs – is one of the noisiest and most polluted spaces in central London. Following the 2017 Westminster Bridge terrorist attack, a working group led by the office of the Mayor of London, Westminster City Council and Parliament was set up to look at new measures to make Parliament Square a safer space. A feasibility study has been funded by the Mayor’s office, Westminster City Council, Parliament and the Home Office, and supported by the Metropolitan Police and government security advisers, to explore “how the public spaces and transport network could be reimagined to make Parliament Square safer and create a better environment for all”. The study was due to be published in Autumn 2019 but at the time of writing has not yet appeared. The study reportedly looks at the option of part-closing Parliament Square to general traffic, as well as wider questions of security, public safety, and improvements for pedestrians (the latter issue being especially pertinent in the context of pandemic-related social distancing measures). In similar vein, the Victoria and Victoria Westminster Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) have submitted a report, People Wanted, to Westminster City Council also calling for part-pedestrianisation of Parliament Square and for measures to eliminate the ‘island effect’ caused by current transport arrangements.
2011 Hansard Society report: ‘A Place for People’
16. We believe that unlocking the potential of Parliament’s environs should be an integral part of the R&R project, in order 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. The location of the proposed decant venues beyond the current parliamentary estate perimeter highlights the need to take into account plans for Parliament Square. We have a vital one-off opportunity to integrate the renewal of the Palace into a more ambitious and creative re-think of the purpose of the surrounding area.
17. In 2011 the Hansard Society produced a report for Parliament (for the Group for Information on the Public) – 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.
18. The area around the Palace of Westminster, especially Parliament Square, is the constitutional heart of the UK. It should be one of the world’s great civic spaces, a place of national pride, and a public space that reflects, shapes and sustains the UK’s national identity and democratic culture. Proposals in our 2011 report covered traffic management, pedestrianisation and signage; the creation of visitor walking routes; the provision of hard copy, human and digital sources of information, both fixed and portable; the creation of a new website for the World Heritage Site, and the use of Parliament Square and Victoria Tower Gardens for public events on democracy-related themes.
19. Most pertinent to the R&R programme, our report proposed the creation of a World Heritage Site Visitor Centre in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre. At present Parliament faces multiple and conflicting identities: is it a working building or a visitor attraction? In reality, it is both; but the former must be accommodated within the building; the latter can be addressed off-site. Westminster is an international attraction: it deserves a facility of international standing to serve those who visit each year. The QEII Centre site might provide such a facility. The building could be developed, post-R&R decant, to provide exhibition and interpretation space (including for theatre and film) and refreshment and retail facilities, focusing on the history of and constitutional relationship between Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the Supreme Court and Whitehall. A World Heritage Site Visitor Centre would be better-placed to convey the rich complexity of the UK’s democratic story than a Centre focusing on just one of the institutions, and it could also facilitate scholarship and support curriculum learning.
Victoria Tower Gardens – Holocaust Memorial Project
20. In recent years Victoria Tower Gardens has been chosen as the site for a national Holocaust Memorial. It is unclear to what extent, if at all, thinking around this project has been integrated with thinking around the R&R project, given that access to Victoria Tower Gardens may be affected by whatever building site requirements are generated by either a full or partial decant model. We are concerned that the current memorial proposals demonstrate the lack of any joined-up thinking at government level about the future of Parliament’s environs.
B. In the interests of affordability and value for money, what compromises could be acceptable during the works, for example in relation to accommodation, location, disturbance, ways of working, facilities and general working environment?
21. On the basis of current design proposals, there are undoubtedly cost savings to be made, not least by refining the Joint Committee’s brief for a ‘like-for-like’ design of the decant venues. For example, an obvious cost saving can be made by abandoning the proposal to replicate the voting lobbies in the temporary House of Commons and replacing it with electronic voting, as implemented during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. In similar vein, the reported plan to lower the ceiling of the QEII Conference Centre to better reflect the height of the real House of Lords is nonsensical if driven by aesthetic rather than substantive concerns.
22. Ultimately, however, the cost of R&R is driven by the level of decant adopted. A rolling programme of repairs or a partial decant were more costly options than a full decant in 2015, and no evidence has been presented in the public domain since then to suggest that a safer, more efficient and more cost-effective alternative to the full decant model is now available.
23. We have grave reservations about the potential compromises that could be needed to facilitate partial decant:
- a. how much inconvenience will MPs be prepared to put up with for a decade or more if half the parliamentary estate is turned into a building site? At present, ‘patch and mend’ works can be stopped if Members complain about noise intrusion; the evidence would suggest that their inconvenience threshold is not particularly high.
- b. provision would need to be made for equipment, materials, and contract staff to be moved on and off the estate. This will have knock-on effects on the local surroundings. How will MPs get around the estate if the Commons Chamber is in the Lords and offices/committee rooms are based in Portcullis House and on the Northern Estate? What security risks will this pose? The greater the number of people on site, the greater the number of movements around the estate and potentially the greater the risk of fire or other related problems.
- c. at present approximately one million people visit Parliament each year for one reason or another. If access has to be considerably reduced to facilitate R&R-related work, this will have an impact on the effectiveness, openness and transparency of Parliament’s operations. There may also be a detrimental impact on Parliament’s highly regarded public engagement programme.
24. In the event of an asbestos leak or the failure of core mechanical and engineering systems, the entire Palace might need to be closed indefinitely, leading to delays in the work programme or the abandonment of partial decant plans. Not only the risk posed to the effective operation of the House of Commons but also the reputational and financial damage that would be incurred as a result of having to close the building makes this, in our view, a compromise too far.
25. It is notable that many of those MPs who wish to remain in the building during the R&R works express concern about the ability of officials to manage such a big project. However, many of these same MPs are willing to throw caution to the wind and risk remaining in the Palace for the duration of works for up to a decade, even though the NAO has indicated that there is a 50% chance of an M&E failure by 2025, and the risk of a catastrophic fire is significant and growing.
26. As well as the cost of actual works, consideration must be given to the ‘opportunity cost’ of inefficiencies and disruption that may be caused by partial decant for both Members and staff, even if the numbers affected directly are scaled back by the continued adoption of ‘working from home’ practices.
27. The ‘virtual’ Parliament ran for only a short period in fully ‘hybrid’ form, but it should nonetheless be possible for officials to assess the extent to which demand for committee and other meeting rooms could be reduced by the adoption of virtual meeting models in future. To support this trade-off, however, such rooms would need to be equipped with better technology than is currently available in meeting rooms on the parliamentary estate.
28. In the absence of a Covid-19 vaccine, if the House of Lords continues to operate virtually for an extended period of time it would be hard to argue against this continuing beyond 2025 to facilitate decant arrangements for R&R. In this scenario would such extensive decant provision be required for Peers and staff in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre? Could a smaller chamber be provided, with less meeting and office space? The decant venue would still be required – but it might need a lower level of investment to convert it for use as a legislative chamber, whilst still maximising the options available for post-decant legacy conversion.
29. We are concerned that disabled access is held up as the optimal goal for improved access on the estate, rather than the bare minimum requirement. Supporting inclusion is about more than just physical access, and a broader, more cross-cutting approach to consideration of this issue in the design brief is needed.
30. Assessing value for money in relation to the R&R project is fraught with difficulty. Conventional economic valuation tools as prescribed by the government’s Green Book dictate the use of a cost-benefit analysis to justify public investment. However, some of the benefits of the R&R project do not lend themselves easily to this traditional analytical framework. Intangible benefits – particularly personal and individually subjective experiences – are difficult to measure and monetise, particularly when there is no real market.
31. Provision for disabled access can be costed, but how is it to be valued? What price improvements in public understanding of Parliament and its work? What value should be placed on democratising access to Parliament’s art and archival collections, which are currently rarely seen by the public? Culture and heritage are important platforms for discussion and debate, for appreciating areas of common inheritance and understanding points of difference, and for recording, mapping and shaping collective institutional and community memory.
32. There is no ready measurement for the collective importance of national pride and prestige, but the R&R project can help to ensure that the Westminster World Heritage Site and Parliament Square are improved in ways truly commensurate with their international status and reputation. Considerable reputational damage is being risked by Parliament and the country by the current failure to do so. But how is this to be costed and value for money determined?
33. Whatever the economic valuation model that is used, it must take full account of the mix of tangible and intangible benefits, and intrinsic and instrumental values, at the individual, institutional, community, national and international level. And it is important to stress throughout the duration of the project that MPs are not spending money on themselves. The proposed investment is for future generations, in an iconic building with a long lifespan.
34. Our Audit of Political Engagement research (2004-2020) has demonstrated that the public dislike politics but value democracy. However, improvements in public perceptions of the institution of Parliament remain fragile and volatile. In this context, Parliament cannot afford to risk unnecessary reputational damage. When fewer people than ever think that Parliament ‘is essential to our democracy’, it is an ever-more difficult environment in which to face the challenging financial decisions posed by R&R. Yet, conversely, given the fragile nature of Parliament’s reputation, it is perhaps precisely the time to grasp the opportunity of laying out a new vision for Parliament for the next century.
C. What balance should be struck between spending the minimum required to prevent a catastrophic failure from flood and fire and taking the opportunity to renew Parliament for the future, for example by improving accessibility or making any other improvements or enhancements to the Palace?
35. The refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster presents an opportunity that has come once in a century and a half to transform the leading institution of our democracy and its environs, revitalising the democratic space – formal and informal, within and on the boundaries of the parliamentary estate – to support a legislature fit for the 21st century and beyond.
36. Proposing to spend billions of pounds on the workplace of MPs is never going to be popular, particularly in the current financial climate, and there is a risk that as a consequence corners will be cut and creativity curbed. But if MPs and Peers come back into a building in 2035 that retains all the features it had on the day the work began in 2025, it will be a huge missed opportunity.
37. Restoration and Renewal should be more than a heritage restoration project, but since 2015 any detailed consideration of what ‘renewal’ might mean has been largely absent from the debate surrounding the project. We are concerned at the prospect of the project becoming mired entirely in the restoration of neo-Gothic grandeur rather than addressing what the public, politicians and parliamentary staff want from a modern, effective and functional 21st-century Parliament. To date, there has been no sense of vision, little evidence of joined-up thinking to link R&R to related projects affecting Parliament’s environs, and limited discussion of a long-term legacy. The project is debated entirely through the prism of cost and risk, with little balancing argument about potential and opportunity. The scale of the problem – both with the building and the state of politics at present – cries out for bold ambition rather than timid aspiration.
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