The Palace of Westminster could face a fire as devastating as the one that has ravaged Notre Dame unless major improvements are made to the crumbling building in central London, MPs have warned.
Politicians have acknowledged that action is needed to safeguard the Houses of Parliament but have spent years wrangling over the best way to proceed and baulked at the billions of pounds required to restore the building.
The “restoration and renewal” programme is not expected to start in earnest until the mid-2020s after MPs and peers voted in early 2018 to leave the historic building to allow the work to be carried out.
We have taken far too long already putting our fire safety measures in place. Parts of the Palace are as old as Notre Dame and we must make sure that every fire precaution is taken as the major work goes ahead. God knows we've had enough warnings.
— Chris Bryant (@RhonddaBryant) April 15, 2019
Labour MP Chris Bryant, who sat on a joint committee of parliamentarians from both Houses which examined the issue, said: “We have taken far too long already putting our fire safety measures in place.
“Parts of the Palace are as old as Notre Dame and we must make sure that every fire precaution is taken as the major work goes ahead. God knows we’ve had enough warnings.”
The 2016 joint committee report noted “a substantial and growing risk of either a single, catastrophic event, such as a major fire, or a succession of incremental failures in essential systems which would lead to Parliament no longer being able to occupy the Palace”.
Fellow Labour MP Anna Turley said she was shocked by the state of the building when she was first elected to Westminster in 2015.
“On my induction my ‘buddy’ was an engineer,” she said. “He showed me the electrics – it looked a health and safety disaster (and fire) waiting to happen.”
Cabinet Office minister David Lidington, effectively Theresa May’s deputy prime minister, said a water leak in the Commons earlier this month was a stark reminder of the need to deal with the building’s problems.
Writing in the Bucks Free Press, the Aylesbury MP said: “Several times in the last year, chunks of masonry have fallen off buildings. We’ve been very lucky no one has been seriously injured.
“Worse, the electrical, plumbing, heating and sewerage systems are well beyond their expected working life span and in a dilapidated state. With each year that passes, the risk of a catastrophic fire grows.”
The Palace of Westminster was built in the mid-1800s as a state-of-the-art purpose-built home for Parliament after a fire in 1834 destroyed large parts of the old building, although the medieval Westminster Hall survived.
Although architect Charles Barry put fire safety at the centre of his designs for the new Palace by using cast iron and stone, the opulent interiors he created with Augustus Welby Pugin used vast quantities of combustible materials.
This and the huge network of ventilation shafts and floor voids they created to aid ventilation had the unintended effect of creating ideal conditions for fire and smoke to spread throughout the building.
Fire safety systems are in place throughout the Palace but they are antiquated and safety officers are required to patrol the building around the clock to spot signs of a blaze.
A parliamentary spokesman said: “Fire safety is a key priority for Parliament and protections are constantly reviewed and updated including at our active construction sites.
“Last year, we completed a major programme of works to enhance fire life safety measures in the Palace of Westminster, and while this work continues we stand ready to learn any lessons that emerge from the fire at Notre Dame to ensure we do everything possible to protect our people and buildings on the Parliamentary Estate.”
A spokesman for the Restoration and Renewal Programme said: “We are already putting plans and a strategy in place to make sure that when construction works for the Palace restoration and renewal starts in the mid-2020s, all fire risks are kept to an absolute minimum.
“Health, safety and wellbeing, including fire safety, will remain the highest priority.”