The restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster: lessons from Canada

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The Joint Committee on Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster reported last week, recommending a full decant from the Palace. Attention is now turning towards the process of implementation. The Canadian parliament’s more advanced redevelopment programme, which will see MPs sitting in a temporary chamber from 2018, can offer some insights into some of the challenges likely to be faced. Oonagh Gay outlines the background to Canada’s restoration project and some of its more controversial aspects.

Following last week’s publication of the report from the Joint Committee on Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster, recommending a full decant from the Palace, attention is turning towards the process of implementation. The Canadian parliament at Ottawa is also undergoing its own programme of redevelopment and provides a useful comparator.

The Canadian parliament was established on Parliament Hill, an escarpment next to Ottawa river. Its grand gothic revival buildings were designed to dominate the horizon. Opened in 1876, the complex suffered a devastating fire in 1916 which led to major rebuilding. A century later the parliament in Ottawa faces many of the same problems as the Westminster parliament. A complete restoration project began in 2001, when a Long Term Vision and Plan (LTVP) was developed in order to direct change in the parliamentary precinct in the city south of Wellington Street. It was designed as a 25-year programme to upgrade dilapidated buildings and add accommodation to the site for MPs, officials and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Parliament Hill in Ottawa comprises three main structures ­­– Centre Block, which includes the parliamentary library, a 93m clock tower and the Commons and Senate chambers, and East and West Blocks which house administrative offices. The implementation framework is for a series of five-year rolling programmes, involving a series of decants around the parliamentary estate.

The LTVP was updated in 2007 and has eight guiding principles. These are:

Symbolic primacy

Preserve and enhance the symbolic primacy and visual integrity of Parliament Hill.

Heritage value

Respect for the role and heritage value of the buildings, the landscape and the settings as a symbol of Canadian democracy.

Natural environment

Ensure that development is sensitive to the natural environment of the site.

Precinct boundary

Establish a clear physical boundary to accommodate all core parliamentary activities and essential services.


Ensure balance between openness, accessibility and security.

Patterns of use

Incorporate coherent and harmonious patterns of use within the site and surrounding community.


Ensure interconnections of functions, services and buildings.


Provide responsible stewardship of resources.

The UK joint committee adopts a more prosaic stance in its guiding principles for the scope of restoration and renewal, as set out in Box 5 of the report:

A: To deliver value for money for the taxpayer;

B  To reduce Parliament’s operational risk;

C: To meet the needs of a 21st century Parliament for (i) the public and (ii) Parliamentarians;

D: To protect the iconic and national heritage of the Palace of Westminster;

E: Ensure the security of Parliament.

In the UK, it is too early to say how these principles will translate into practice, but in Canada, an opportunity was taken to create a different style of interim chamber. In 2007 a series of more detailed design principles were developed.

Much progress has already been made. The Library of Parliament underwent a very successful renovation in 2006. The West Block work is largely completed and in 2018 the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, will move into the former offices of the first Liberal Prime Minister of Canada, Alexander Mackenzie. Currently a new Visitor Welcome Centre is in the process of being built. This will be a four level underground complex, designed to blend with the historical structures, but also provide appropriate levels of security with a visitor screening facility and underground links to relevant buildings, including the two chambers.

The biggest challenge facing Ottawa is the full rehabilitation of the Centre Block, which houses the Commons chamber. An assessment warned that there was imminent risk of total failure in 2019, so the project will begin in 2018 and will last a decade. MPs will meet in a temporary chamber in the newly built West Block courtyard. The temporary chamber will have a glass roof covering the courtyard, so creating a completely different feel from the traditional chamber, whose design echoes Westminster.  After the Centre Block is renewed the temporary chamber will be used for committee space. The decision to decant was influenced by a consultancy report warning that work in an occupied building would increase costs and duration by a considerable amount.

This interim chamber, with its boldly contemporary glass roof, has provided a flashpoint for heritage and budget concerns and has been the source of much of the planned increase in the budget. For instance, glazing had to be replaced and re-costed when it was found to be incompatible with TV broadcast lighting requirements. The temporary chamber retains the traditional Westminster layout, with opposing benches.

Unsurprisingly there has been some critical parliamentary reaction. The Commons Standing Committee on Government operations and estimates held a special hearing in March 2015 on the plans for the temporary chamber where its chair, Pat Martin, expressed scepticism about the costs, which had risen to 3 billion Canadian dollars, and argued that ‘we don’t need a crystal palace here’.

The Senate Chamber will move into the Government Conference Centre, formerly Ottawa’s main rail station, and a much more traditional style building. This is the second time that chambers have been moved, both previously having found temporary accommodation after the 1916 fire. This time, as in the UK, the administrative and technical requirements for servicing parliamentary processes and supporting MPs are far more complex and demand more physical space. Security concerns are high on the agenda, after a lone terrorist killed a soldier outside the war memorial and burst into the Centre Building in October 2014. He was shot dead by the Serjeant-at-Arms, Kevin Vickers. Following this, security was reorganised and a Parliamentary Protection Service created in June 2015.

Canada retains a government department charged with maintaining federal buildings and services, unlike the UK which abolished the Property Services Agency under the Thatcher government in 1990, and also transferred to parliament the responsibility for parliamentary maintenance. In Canada, the Senate, the House of Commons, and the Library of Parliament (a joint department) are essentially ‘occupants’ in Crown-owned buildings. The Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) is the official custodian of the parliament buildings and grounds. In 1999 the Canadian parliamentary service developed Building the Future: House of Commons Requirements for the Parliamentary Precinct, which has a useful history of the piecemeal development of the parliamentary estate and the arguments for a comprehensive approach.

A major component of the LTVP update in 2007 was the creation of a new implementation framework designed to improve results and enhance accountability. This framework establishes shorter term objectives in the context of the longer term vision. Rather than following the contracting route that has typically been employed by the Parliamentary Precinct Branch of the PWGSC, a construction management process was adopted, allowing contractors and architects to work together. Nevertheless, in 2010 the Auditor General was critical of fragmented accountability and decision making in a review of progress so far. Meanwhile, there were parliamentary concerns about inappropriate lobbying in respect of a contract for the West Block that same year. No major governance changes have been made in response. Oversight of the project is provided for in the parliamentary administration strategic plans, working with PWGSC but there is no equivalent to the planned UK sponsor board.

The Long Term Vision and Plan Annual Report 2014-15 emphasises that the projects are within budget and on target. It currently runs at £1.6billion in UK prices. However, critics argue that the budget was for 20 years and set at an inflated amount.

In the UK, responsibility for refurbishment and decants is within the parliamentary administration. A major factor behind the transfer of this responsibility to the UK parliament was the abolition of the Property Service Agency in 1990. The Restoration and Renewal Programme recognises the scale of the renovation required for parliament is of a completely different order to ordinary maintenance and upgrade work. So the joint committee recommends a separate delivery authority for which legislation will be required, to be supervised by a sponsor board with representation from parliament, government and wider society. However, controversy on the detail of both the temporary and permanent changes at Westminster is unlikely to be avoided, if the Canadian experience is anything to go by.

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.

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