Britain’s Notre Dame? Why MPs need to solve the Houses of Parliament problem

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<span>Photograph: Geoff Smith/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Geoff Smith/Alamy

I am looking at an electrical cupboard. Above it is a tray to catch drips from a possibly leaking vault. A pipe descends from the tray to the floor. The floor is periodically inspected to see if it’s wet, which would mean that the vault is indeed leaking. The arrangement, given that water and electricity are known to mix badly, looks precarious.

In every direction stretch uncountable kilometres of wires and pipes, fronds of high-voltage cables, a Terry Gilliam cosmos of whistling and buzzing devices, vapour, puddles, stifling heat, gaffer tape, silver foil, warning signs, conduits, refrigerating units and extractor fans, long lengths of tubing that are – literally – rat runs. There are old paint tins to catch more drips, plastic bins full of used coffee cups, cardboard boxes, discarded cable trays, retired office chairs. There is a Victorian, steam-powered sewage ejector. There is asbestos.

A ring of handsome cast-iron pillars, nicknamed “the bandstand”, informs me of the presence of something majestic overhead; it helps to support the lofty lanterned octagon of the central lobby of the Houses of Parliament. Around the lobby extend chambers and stairs and corridors as intricate as the mechanical basement, but more refined: fan vaults and tracery, stained glass, frescoes, encaustic tiles, linen-fold panelling, architectural devices copied from chapter houses and cathedrals, medievalising paintings of knights and maidens, scenes of battles on land and sea.

It seems scary that Britain’s democracy should be conducted above what resembles a huge and toxic bomb

Up in this fairy overworld, somewhere above the electrical-cupboard-and-drip-tray contraption, Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer will, on the day of my visit, face each other at prime minister’s questions. It seems scary that Britain’s democracy should be conducted above what resembles a huge and toxic bomb. A number of people think that the situation is indeed perilous. Andrea Leadsom MP, a former leader of the House, warns that the Palace of Westminster could be “Britain’s Notre Dame”. Like the roof of the cathedral in Paris, it could go up in smoke.

Others put the risk a bit lower, but there is almost universal agreement among the politicians, officials and consultants involved in the wellbeing of the building: something must be done. “People are genuinely worried,” says Mark Spencer, the current leader of the House, gesturing outside the Tudor-style window of his office. “You can see the scaffolding out here where a bit of masonry fell off. We must make sure that the House is safe for everyone and we clearly don’t want it all to burn down.”

Labour MP Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee, puts it more strongly: “Staff should not be expected to work in a dangerous place – it’s just unconscionable.”

Exposed wiring beneath parliament
‘Uncountable kilometres of wires and pipes… a Terry Gilliam cosmos of whistling and buzzing devices’: electrical wiring in Westminster in 2014. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The question is how to fix the building. It is fraught. Some, among them Jacob Rees-Mogg, Spencer and – reportedly – the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, dispute what the experts tell them about both cost and the time MPs will have to spend out of the building during the works. In February, it was decided to terminate the Sponsor Body, an organisation separate from parliament, set up to help achieve what’s called the restoration and renewal programme, apparently for bringing bad news about the budget and the relocation. ‘“Politicians lost confidence in the Sponsor Body,” Spencer claims, so it had to go.

Many, including Leadsom and Hillier, are appalled by this change of course. “The House authorities,” said the latter last week, “have unilaterally taken this massive, critical project of huge national, historical, cultural and political significance back to the drawing board; reversing decisions by both Houses, with no justification for wrecking the plan that was under way.”

The cost is currently estimated in a range from £7bn to £13bn, figures that water the eye and smack the gob. The recently completed Elizabeth line cost £18.9bn. Even allowing for the fact that its construction costs are in the past and parliament’s are in the future, and so inflation has to be taken into account, it is extraordinary that the restoration of a single historic building is in the same ballpark as a piece of infrastructure designed to serve 200 million passengers per year.

“Lots of colleagues say, ‘Well, wait a minute,’” says Spencerof the cost. “‘I need this new hospital, I need this new railway line, I need this new roundabout and I cannot justify to my constituents spending billions of quid on what will be presented as an ivory tower.’”

Then there’s the question of relocating MPs and lords to temporary accommodation while their workplace is being refurbished, probably for many years. This, for them, is upsetting: imagine enduring all those long days and nights spent climbing greasy poles and eating rubber chicken at constituency events, the collateral damage on family and friendships, the sweat and hazards of elections, only to find that you might spend your parliamentary career in a portable-building version of the Commons chamber.

Ordure, ordure! The Victorian sewerage system beneath the Palace of Westminster.
Ordure, ordure! The Victorian sewerage system beneath the Palace of Westminster. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

And behind the technical issues lies the human plumbing and wiring of parliament, as tangled as the physical kind in the basement, what with the numerous agendas of politicians and officials, the posing and the factions and the serious endeavour. Alexandra Meakin, an expert in politics from Leeds University, who wrote a revealing thesis on the renewal programme, says that parliament suffers from a “complex and opaque governance system that has, in part, enabled the neglect that has imperilled the building”.

“Coming from a business background,” Leadsom told her, “the way the House is run just defies any form of logic.”

* * *

The origins of the current dilemma start with a previous fire. In October 1834, the old Palace of Westminster, an accumulation of buildings going back hundreds of years, burned down. A competition was held to design the replacement. The winning design, by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, was in a gothic-Elizabethan style that appealed to patriotic traditions – grand and lavish and full of celebrations of British (especially English) history and power. There were paintings of King Arthur and his round table, victories over the Spanish Armada and Napoleon, grave portraits of great men. In 1852, after delays, rows, political interference, design changes and spectacular cost overruns, MPs could move in, the lords having done so in 1847. It would take until 1876 to complete the building and work on the interiors continued into the 20th century.

The palace received a barrage of complaints about its functional shortcomings. Although it was abundant with superfluous space, the debating chamber of the House of Commons was oddly undersized. “The new palace at Westminster was not a house built for business,” said the Tory MP Colonel Charles Sibthorp. The design and making of the building was, the prime minister William Gladstone said in 1869, “totally incompetent”. This, though, is the Palace of Westminster now famous around the world, widely admired, pre-eminent tourist attraction, Unesco world heritage site, grade I-listed building and sacred emblem of British democracy. In time, the view arose that the overcrowded debating chamber created a desirable intimacy and intensity. In 1941, it was destroyed by bombing and there was some discussion whether its replacement should take a new form. Winston Churchill argued passionately that it should be put back in its old shape, which he loved, and it was.

St Stephen’s Hall is among the many beautiful features of the grade I-listed building.
St Stephen’s Hall is among the many beautiful features of the grade I-listed building. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Postwar reconstruction apart, this venerable building has mostly been subject to a longstanding habit of patching-up and muddling-through, of make do and mend. Barry’s design included an ambitious and not entirely successful ventilation system, involving 98 risers running the height of the building, empty spaces between floors and a basement running from one end of the 980ft-long palace to the other. When new technologies – electricity, air conditioning, CCTV, the internet – demanded new paraphernalia, it was convenient to stuff it in these spaces.

The result is the demented steam-punk submarine that is the basement in its current state. Here and throughout the building, new layers are added to outdated and undermaintained equipment. Meanwhile, the building’s sand-coloured limestone crumbles, sometimes creating hazards from falling masonry and requiring ad hoc protective arrangements of scaffolding and sheeting that litter the estate. Leaks cause damage to internal stonework.

Hillier says there is “always a stinky smell” in many parts of the building because of the faulty drainage. “I kid you not,” Leadsom tells me of a visit she made to the basement. “There was raw sewage spraying into it.” Last October, 117 people were accidentally exposed to asbestos, which will require them to have regular health checks for 40 years. Since 2016, there have been at least 25 fires in the building, most admittedly minor, but all those voids of the Victorian ventilation system increase the chance that fire could spread rapidly.

It would be wrong to suggest that these problems are simply ignored. The Elizabeth Tower, bearer of Big Ben, has been successfully if expensively restored. The palace has an extensive maintenance team continually doing what it can to fix dangers and malfunctions. A sprinkler system, for example, has been installed in the basement. It is pointed out to me that, if it were truly an unsafe working environment, it would be closed down by the relevant authorities and I am assured that everyone should be able to get out safely in the event of fire. But there is less confidence that the historic fabric would survive. It also costs an increasing amount, estimated at more than £3m a week over the next two years, in essential maintenance. Other big issues have to be addressed. Access for people with impaired mobility, for example, what with the numerous steps and level changes of the picturesque architecture, is atrocious. Security is a continuing challenge.

MP and former leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom has expressed fears about the building’s fire risks and says it could potentially turn into ‘Britain’s Notre Dame’.
MP and former leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom has expressed fears about the building’s fire risks and says it could potentially turn into ‘Britain’s Notre Dame’. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

For all these reasons, officials, politicians and consultants have, over decades and with increasing urgency, called for significant action, yet it is still some way off. The most obvious cause of delay is the phantasmagoric expense, the reasons for which become clearer as I tour the building. On the one hand, it is a historic structure of global importance. It is vast: 1.2m sq ft spread over 3.2 hectares (eight acres) – the size of a skyscraper laid on its side – encrusted from end to end with carving, art and decoration. On the other hand, it has that fiendish infrastructure.

Heritage and servicing have multiplying effects on each other. Fixing mechanical services is made much more difficult and therefore expensive by the fact that large equipment and plant have to be smuggled through narrow openings and low passageways in the unalterable fabric. When a historic room is refurbished, it is necessary to take apart its decoration, insert modern services and painstakingly put it back together. I am shown a committee room where, about 20 years ago, Pugin’s double-flocked wallpaper was remade from patterns kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum and where his oak panelling was reconstructed and French-polished, even as air-handling units were inserted above the ornate ceilings and fan coils installed in new Pugin-style cabinets.

Almost everything in these spaces are crafted one-offs – furniture, hinges, lights, wall coverings, art, carpets, fireplaces. New pipes and wires, meanwhile, also have to be bespoke and crafted to get round the thickets of old ones already there. It costs large sums, as a result of all these factors, to restore both committee rooms and hidden services. Just one of those 98 risers, albeit a large one, cost £4m and took five years to renovate. You can begin to see where billions of pounds might go.

Almost as challenging as the cost is what’s called the “decant” – the removal of both lords and MPs from their chambers while reconstruction takes place. There was a plan, currently paused, to move the Commons to a listed government building called Richmond House in Whitehall. The lords were to go to the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre on the other side of Parliament Square, until Michael Gove unhelpfully stepped in, in his capacity as secretary of state for levelling up. The House of Lords should go outside London, he suggested, for example, to Stoke-on-Trent.

The building was bombed several times during the second world war, most notably in May 1941, above, when the Commons chamber was destroyed.
The building was bombed several times during the second world war, most notably in May 1941, above, when the Commons chamber was destroyed. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

Over the past decade, it had seemed that progress was being made, if at glacial pace, pausing for elections and the EU referendum. In 2012, a pre-feasibility study found that “fundamental renovation can no longer be avoided”. An independent options report by the financial and risk consultancy Deloitte, published in 2015, found that a “full decant option” , in which Lords and Commons would have to move out for an estimated six years, involved the best and least risky of the five scenarios that the consultancy explored. The report estimated the cost, on the basis of limited information, at almost £4bn.

In 2018, parliament agreed to the principle of a decant and voted to set up a management structure similar to the one that had enabled the 2012 London Olympics. There would be a Sponsor Body, which would act as a client on behalf of parliament, and a Delivery Authority, set up to “develop and deliver the work to the scope, budget and timescale set down by the Sponsor Body”, as the official description puts it. They would work together to produce an outline business case, to be approved by parliament, which would develop Deloitte’s rough guesses in more detail.

Early this year, the Sponsor Body produced “a preliminary view of the potential range of cost and schedule for the main building phase of the programme”. It was this that estimated restoration and renewal to cost from £7bn to £13bn, taking place over 19 to 28 years. MPs and lords would have to decant for between 12 and 20 years. This report was intended as an intermediate stage, still based on incomplete information, in developing the business case due to be presented to parliament next year.

On the question of moving out, sceptics worry about ancient traditions being ruptured. Prominent among them is Jacob Rees-Mogg

This news was, though, too much for some. The numbers were, as a senior Commons source puts it, “politically unrealistic and unjustifiable”. The House of Commons commission, a powerful body whose members include Hoyle and Spencer, in partnership with its sister the House of Lords commission, decided to abolish the Sponsor Body. In June it proposed that its “client function” should be “brought in-house, as a new joint department of both Houses.” In other words, the distance that the Sponsor Body had from the machinations of parliament would be removed.

The new arrangement, Spencer tells me, will enable better coordination between the continuing maintenance works and the grand renovation project, such that the works of the former will contribute to the latter. He expresses his frustration: “We were sold this aspiration of a new shiny building to come back to after we’ve decanted for a maximum of six years.” He envisages instead a more incremental, rolling programme, heading to a distant but clearly identified end point. He hopes the pain of the multibillion-pound hit would be spread over time, with a shorter period of decant.

* * *

Behind this latest convulsion lies a long history of disagreement among MPs about the best way forward, focused in particular on the question of moving out. Decant sceptics worry that ancient traditions and customs will be ruptured. Prominent among them is Rees-Mogg, who proposed that the Commons could remain on the estate during building works, in the medieval and hard-to-heat Westminster Hall. “It seems to me that we could have sat there in our overcoats,” he told parliament.

The 2018 vote to proceed was quite narrowly carried. Rees-Mogg, who as leader of the House from 2019 to February 2022 is an influential figure on the subject of restoration and renewal, voted against on the basis that it would be impossible to reconstruct the Commons chamber to its identical dimensions in the then-current plan to move to Richmond House. Views on the matter tend to divide on EU referendum lines: many Brexiters, seeing removal as a danger to the sovereign dignity of parliament, oppose it. “It’s often been joked about here in the House,” the former Speaker John Bercow told Meakin of Leeds University in 2018, “that some of the most prominent leavers are the remainers.” Hoyle is also said to oppose lengthy interruption. As chair of the House of Commons commission, which cancelled the Sponsor Body, he is a significant force in the process.

Many of Spencer’s feelings are understandable. It is hard, politically speaking, to sell such expenditure during a cost of living crisis. But what if the estimates of between £7bn and £13bn produced by the Sponsor Body are broadly accurate? In that case, it would be prevarication and deceit on the electorate to pretend otherwise. And previous studies have shown that incremental work is worse value and increases the risk of catastrophe, as does keeping members in the building during construction. Common sense suggests the same thing: imagine the logistics of politicians and huge building works sharing the same enclosure. And it’s difficult to take out a part of a pipe and come back next year to do the next bit if you want it to keep on working in the meantime.

To translate into plain English: the taxpayer would in this case have to pay even more, so that MPs can stay in their gothic cocoon and to spare them the awkwardness of presenting a large part of the bill in one go. Which would be unforgivable. Perhaps MPs and lords need to see that if the public is going to take some financial pain, they too need to make sacrifices – to accept that there will be an unlucky generation of exiles, albeit not so unlucky as it would be if the palace burned down with them inside.

Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer at the state opening of parliament in May 2021.
Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer at the state opening of parliament in May 2021. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

“Frankly,” said Alan Haselhurst, a former Conservative MP and deputy speaker, to Meakin, “I’d sit in a marquee if it was what I had to do to be a member of parliament, the job is the job, either you want to do it or you don’t.”

“I care less where I am doing my job than that I am doing it,” Hillier tells me.

All aspects of the programme should of course be subject to rigorous scrutiny. But it is hard not to hear, with the dissolution of the Sponsor Body, the clatter of a colossal can being forever kicked down the road and the harsh bang of a messenger being shot. Last week a report by the public accounts committee slammed the decision to abolish it as one that would cause further risk and delay. “Until parliament decides what it wants, and sticks to it,” said the report, “it will be almost impossible for any sponsor to deliver any programme.” The point of the body, it noted, was to “take the oversight of this huge project out of the political arena.” Into which it will now be plunged, with multiple opportunities for interference and uncertainty.

The actions of the House of Commons commission look much like a continuation of the behaviour that has got the building into its current parlous state: almost no politician, for the last century and more, has wanted to be the one to break bad news about the cost of repairs. Instead, as there is no single individual or board with overall responsibility for the whole building, decisions have been subject to infighting and occasional outbreaks of idiocy. “Pieces of masonry can fall off anywhere,” a noble Lord told Meakin, for example. “It’s your bad luck if you happen to be under it.”

During the 19th-century rebuilding, Barry faced what one history calls “a mighty procedural octopus” of select committee inquiries. There are also earlier and more troubling parallels to the modern paralysis: in 1789 a select committee reported that the then palace was “liable to rapid Decay, and Accident from Fire and the remainder extremely old and ruinous”. Then, as now, decades passed in which nothing much was done, until in 1834 the prophesied blaze came to pass. The precedent that modern parliament should most fear is perhaps not Notre Dame, but its own previous self.

Now parliament is due to debate the proposed replacement of the Sponsor Body on 12 July. Hillier doubts its effectiveness, saying that “anything with in-house ‘expertise’ has a poor track record… clerks are afraid to question senior colleagues or MPs” and it may or may not now be the least worst option on offer. But all politicians and officials concerned should recognise the seriousness of their task and get on and do what it takes to achieve it. At times, in writing this article, it has been tempting to wish that the mechanical and electoral Kraken under MPs’ feet would finally awake, that this automotive Guy Fawkes would at last set fire to the whole palace of dither and distraction. But I couldn’t wish that on the blameless staff who clean, administer, maintain, guard and cater there, nor on what is indeed a magnificent building.

There is no scope for political games, nor for fantasies about moving to Stoke or wearing overcoats in Westminster Hall. The situation is urgent. Ultimately, what matters most is not the comfort or self-esteem of MPs and lords, but the wellbeing and possibly the survival of a monument that is up there with the Taj Mahal and the Parthenon. “The Palace of Westminster is one of the most famous buildings in the world”, as Leadsom says. “We don’t have a choice.”

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