Notre Dame: A wake-up call for the Palace of Westminster?

images.001download.001News reports suggest that the long-delayed Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster will be accelerated in response to the devastating fire at Notre Dame. Alexandra Meakin and Alexandra Anderson discuss why progress has been slow and the need for action to address the fire risk in Parliament.

The devastation at Notre Dame in April 2019 is a stark reminder of the dangerously high fire risk facing the Palace of Westminster. The home of the UK Parliament has been very lucky to escape its own catastrophe, with ‘sixty-six incidents that had the potential to cause a serious fire’ since 2008. Wardens have been patrolling the Palace 24 hours a day in order to mitigate the major fire risks and to address the inadequate fire alarm systems. Part of the problem is due to the very structure of the building, as after the devastating fire which destroyed the old building in 1834, the rebuilt Palace included an extensive ventilation system that ‘unintentionally create[d] ideal conditions for fire and smoke to spread through the building’.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Thursday 25 April, the Labour MP Chris Bryant highlighted the Notre Dame fire in order to call attention to the urgent need for the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster (R&R) to be carried forward as soon as possible. Bryant, a long-running campaigner for rebuilding the Palace of Westminster (and potential candidate for Speaker should a vacancy arise during the current parliament), noted that while the fire in Paris had caused unimaginable destruction, there had been no fatalities. It would, he warned, be very different if such a fire was to take hold in the Palace of Westminster, where 9,000 people work every day and one million people visit each year.

The fire risk in Westminster has been well-known for years. A 2012 report set out the need for the major refurbishment programme in order to address the fire and flooding risk caused by the buildings’ dilapidated infrastructure that is decades past its expected lifespan. Four years later, the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster emphasised the growing risk to the building, warning that:

‘there is 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.’

The Committee called for action without further delay, to ‘restore and renew this historic building for the future, and to ensure that the Palace of Westminster is preserved for future generations’.

Despite this call for urgency, it took over 500 days for the government, which has control of the parliamentary timetable, to bring forward a debate on the Joint Committee’s report. During this period a horrific tragedy just a few miles from Westminster highlighted again the devastation caused by fire. When the Commons finally discussed the R&R programme in January 2018, the senior Conservative MP, Damian Green, highlighted why the Grenfell Tower fire should prompt action on the risk to the Palace:

‘The argument is that in the wake of the terrible tragedy of Grenfell Tower, we cannot be seen to be spending large sums of money on this place. I would turn that argument absolutely on its head. Having seen the appalling effects of a fire in a building that had inadequate protection, I think it would be the height of irresponsibility not to take action to make safe a building that we know is barely safe now and that is getting more dangerous every year.’

We’ve interviewed dozens of MPs, peers and parliamentary staff about the Restoration and Renewal process, and several have cited Green’s intervention as crucial in persuading parliamentarians that action was required. By a majority of 16, the Commons voted to proceed with the Restoration and Renewal programme and, crucially, to leave the Palace while the works take place. The decision was a surprise, coming on an amendment to the government’s own motions, which had sought further time for research into delivery options for the building work. While it was a free vote, there was a clear split on party lines, with the successful amendment opposed by a majority of Conservative MPs, including the Chief Whip. Perhaps unsurprisingly, progress on enacting the will of both Houses remains slow, despite the House of Lords backing the amended motion without a division the following week.

The sluggish progress has been a result of multiple factors—not least the way Brexit has dominated events in parliament. As discussed in a previous Constitution Unit blog, the prospect of leaving the EU became part of the debate around leaving the Palace of Westminster in order for R&R to take place. A key factor in the delay of the R&R programme is its status as a parliamentary project that is dependent on government cooperation, to not only table the debate, but also to then bring forward the necessary legislation to establish the governance bodies for R&R to proceed. The latter point was raised by Bryant in the second half of his question, when he called on the Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, to ‘put on her hobnail boots, storm over to Downing Street, stamp her feet and force the Prime Minister to bring forward the Parliamentary Buildings Bill as fast as possible’. This bill was published in draft in October 2018, and then scrutinised by a Joint Select Committee that reported in March 2019.

In this report, the Joint Committee on the Parliamentary Buildings Bill echoed previous warnings about the risks facing the Palace:

‘It has been established beyond doubt that the Palace is at risk of catastrophic failure and as a UNESCO world heritage site the Government is obliged to ensure the building is maintained and protected. Our generation of Parliamentarians should not shirk from the challenge of not only protecting the fabric of the building, but investing in a building which can meet the democratic demands of the British people both in this century and the next.’

Any work on the Palace is political due to the very nature of the building and this is not always conducive to its successful delivery. During the construction of the ‘new’ Palace after 1834 Charles Barry was subject to over 100 different select committee inquiries. 180 years later the Joint Committee concluded, however, that the proposed governance structure in the draft Bill ‘provides sufficient independence to limit political interference in Restoration and Renewal’.

Yet the Joint Committee also warned that the decant could be delayed to 2028 — some ten years after the Commons and Lords agreed to move out — due to difficulties securing temporary accommodation. The Commons is due to move into nearby Richmond House, the former home of the Department of Health. Before the decant can happen, however, Richmond House must be developed and occupied as part of the Northern Estate Programme (the renovation of a number of outbuildings on the parliamentary estate that are used as offices for MPs and parliamentary staff). This is an extensive, expensive and costly project, with the potential for significant delays. Furthermore, the development of Richmond House has also prompted concerns about heritage, as all but the frontage of the building is due to be demolished. The Chair of the Restoration and Renewal Shadow Sponsor Board, Liz Peace, noted in January that the R&R team would have to ‘factor in any delays that might be caused were there to be a public inquiry’ into the future of Richmond House and this could consequently add even further delays.

There is no shortage of architects issuing press releases and designs for alternative decant accommodation, however these proposals are not always based on a realistic understanding of the needs of the building. A floating parliament on the Thames might sound appealing to some, but was ruled out by the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster in 2016 on security grounds (with concerns about noise, access and the fact it would block the river entirely also noted). Similarly, Norman Foster’s recent suggestion for a replica Palace on Horse Guard Parade falls outside the secure perimeter of the parliamentary estate and is very unlikely to be considered further. Suggestions that parliament takes advantage of the opportunity of R&R to move out of the ‘Westminster bubble’ to Manchester, Birmingham or even Sheffield fail to take into account the need for ministers to be able to move quickly between their departments and the Commons chamber. Our political system is predicated on ministerial accountability to parliament and moving the Commons and Lords out of London would require moving the civil service simultaneously. And while there might be advantages to such a change, moving parliament out of Westminster was ruled out back in 2012.

Richmond House may then be the only option for the Commons decant. Given the extent of the risk faced by the Palace any further delays to R&R would be extremely concerning. Moreover, it is not just about the fire risk: recent weeks have seen the Commons suspended after a burst pipe flooded the press gallery, and the masonry literally crumbling, with injuries (or fatalities) avoided simply through luck. As the building continues to deteriorate, the risks of a major crisis increase day by day. The Palace may not survive until 2028 for the decant to begin. Contingency plans exist should an emergency decant become necessary, but the loss of such an iconic building would be disastrous.

The scale of the risk is clearly recognised by Andrea Leadsom, who concluded her answer to Bryant by suggesting that he ‘watch this space’, and various press reports now suggests that the Parliamentary Buildings Bill will be published in early May. Although the Leader of the House has been clear about her personal commitment to driving R&R forward, it is not clear if this sentiment is similarly shared throughout the Cabinet. The legislation would be a positive step forward for Restoration and Renewal as it proposes an independent governance structure enabling accountability to parliament and the taxpayer, but also restricting undue political interference. Tabling the Parliamentary Buildings Bill would therefore enable R&R to proceed without further delay — and could prevent the tragedy of Notre Dame from being repeated in Westminster.

About the authors

Alexandra Meakin is a Research Associate at the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield, and a former Committee Specialist on the Commons Public Administration and Transport Committees. This blog draws on interviews from her doctoral research on the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster and parliamentary governance. She tweets as @A_Meakin

Alexandra Anderson is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield, where she is working on the Designing for Democracy project – an analysis of the Restoration and Renewal Programme for the Palace of Westminster. She tweets as @andsalexandra