A joint parliamentary committee is currently considering options for the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster, expected to begin after the 2020 general election. Much of the media speculation has focused on what will happen whilst the work is undertaken but the committee must also address some other big questions. Oonagh Gay sets these out and argues that the programme offers major opportunities to re-design the Palace to be more user friendly.
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, and gradually the need to do more than patch and repair it has become urgent. This is a Grade 1 listed building forming part of an UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a million visitors a year, after all, even if extra expenditure on accommodation and services for MPs and peers is hardly popular. But a nineteenth century palace has struggled to adapt to modern office practices, with a growing need for online working and public transparency.
Senior parliamentary officials warned in October 2012 that irreversible damage would occur if nothing was done. A programme of Restoration and Renewal (R & R) began in the last parliament. The House of Commons Commission set in place an Independent Options Appraisal which was published on 18 June 2015, just after the general election. This set out three options:
- Rolling programme. Undertaking minimum work taking 32 years. Both chambers would have to close for between 2-4 years, at different times, but sittings could be relocated to a temporary structure elsewhere in or around the Palace.
- Partial move out. The work would be carried out more quickly if first the Commons, then the Lords, were to move to temporary accommodation outside the Palace.
- Full move out. If both Houses fully vacated the Palace this would take the least time and would avoid disruption to parliament from construction works. This approach would take around six years.
Cost estimates were in the range of £3 to £6 billion and no one option was necessarily the cheapest. R & R is not intended to start until after the general election of 2020, giving plenty of time for planning in this parliament.
The next step was a joint select committee of both Houses, established in July 2015 and chaired by the Leaders of the Commons and the Lords. This called for evidence from members, staff and the public in November. The deadline for submitting evidence was 22 January, but later submissions will be accepted.
Media speculation is growing that the committee is moving towards recommending a full move out. Reports suggest that the favoured option to site a temporary Commons chamber is the courtyard of the Department of Health’s Richmond House building, an attractive option because Richmond House is next to the buildings where MPs’ offices are located and the location meets security concerns. Under these plans the Lords would sit in a temporary chamber nearby, possibly at the Treasury or Foreign Office.
The joint committee has also begun to ask the other big questions:
- How should such a major project be delivered?
- What changes are required to the building to adapt to parliament’s changing needs in the 21st century?
- Could any changes make it easier for the public to be welcomed into the Palace and to see and participate in the work of Parliament?
One question not on the table is a permanent re-location of Parliament away from Westminster. This was ruled out by House of Commons Commission in 2012.
The committee has welcomed views from external visitors, as well as Westminster insiders. As well as undertaking the business of parliament, the Palace is a huge magnet for tourists and an opportunity to enhance public engagement is likely to feature in the committee’s thinking. The heritage of Westminster should not be overlooked in the search to ensure better working conditions for legislators, at minimal cost and disruption. Finally security is a growing factor at Westminster. Providing a secure estate with the UK Cabinet entering and leaving the building at regular intervals also has to be taken account of.
The Restoration and Renewal Programme offers major opportunities to re-design chambers and committee rooms to be more user-friendly. The Palace is one of the most potent symbols of parliamentary democracy worldwide. The last opportunity to reshape Westminster was during the Second World War when the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, decided to restore the Chamber pretty much as it had been, after bombing destroyed the Commons in 1941. At the time, there was remarkably little debate on alternative options, and money was tight. Other Commonwealth parliaments provided many fixtures and fittings. Details of the changes were discussed at a recent History of Parliament seminar along with earlier relocations to Oxford in the seventeenth century.
A crowded chamber, where at least 200 MPs are denied a seat if attendance reaches capacity, might have fitted the mood then, but a temporary structure housing a chamber is likely to be better equipped, with dedicated seating and access to IT and wi-fi. Would a temporary chamber have voting lobbies? If MPs become used to more spacious and well-equipped facilities, maybe with electronic voting, they might be reluctant to return to a mere restoration with traditional lobbies. Similarly the public may well want more transparent ways of seeing legislators at work than restricted seating in galleries well above the chambers. There is a shortage of rooms at Westminster for political and NGO meetings, and arguably a surplus of dining facilities.
This is a major project, outside the expertise of current senior parliamentary figures. Should a delivery authority (such as was used for the 2012 Olympics) be the model to use? If so, how can it be held to account?
There is a real chance for a public debate on what sort of parliament we would like to see. Should Westminster abandon the traditional chambers to public tours and reconfigure internally to allow for hemispherical chambers? Should the increasing importance of committee work be recognised by allowing room for more meetings? Or should the internal heritage of the Palace take precedence? Also, can anything be done about Parliament Square, currently too choked with traffic to form a harmonious visitor experience?
For once, commentators need to look at the long-term and ask some difficult questions about the kind of building which would best support a vibrant parliamentary democracy. If the Palace is no longer fit for that purpose, how can R & R assist in developing an alternative?
The committee is expecting to report in May.
About the author
Oonagh Gay is a former official at the House of Commons Library, responsible for the Parliament and Constitution Centre. She is an Honorary Fellow at The Constitution Unit and writes on parliamentary standards.