Progress on the Restoration and Renewal (R&R) project has been slow, but despite the time taken, there has been limited engagement with the public on the issue. Alexandra Anderson, Alexandra Meakin and Matt Flinders express optimism that amendments to the legislation responsible for R&R indicate a promising change of direction, creating an opportunity not to simply restore and protect the past but to embrace a positive vision of the future.
It is now three years since a Joint Select Committee warned that ‘The Palace of Westminster, a masterpiece of Victorian and medieval architecture and engineering, faces an impending crisis which we cannot responsibly ignore’. This crisis, the Committee continued, was likely to be a catastrophe, such as a major fire or flood, or a succession of failures of the infrastructure, leaving the building unusable. There can now be no doubt about the validity of this warning: since the Committee reported we have seen the House of Commons flood during a debate, a ‘football-sized lump’ fall off the Victoria Tower, and wardens are currently patrolling the building twenty-four hours a day to address the regular outbreaks of fire (now totalling 66 in the last decade). As the then Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, told MPs in May — referring only to the instances of crumbling masonry — ‘It is only through luck that none of them has led to any serious injuries or even fatalities’. If any further warning was necessary, the tragedy of Notre Dame in April demonstrated the potential devastation of fire.
This week has marked a significant step forward in plans for a major renovation, aimed at keeping the building—and the visitors, parliamentarians, and staff within it—safe from disaster or tragedy. The Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019, which has now received Royal Assent, will establish the necessary governance bodies so that the planning work for what will be a multi-billion, multi-decade project can begin in earnest.
Not only will the Act offer the best opportunity for preventing a crisis hitting the Palace, it also offers the opportunity to place the public at the heart of this renovation: the Restoration and Renewal (R&R) Programme. This is hugely significant. The original text of the legislation (and the projects associated with the wider programme) were designed to address only the crisis of the building, and not the broader crisis of UK democracy. Amendments tabled in the House of Lords and approved by the Commons on Monday have ensured that public engagement will be an integral part of fixing the Palace.
Placing the public at the heart of Restoration and Renewal will be crucial to the project’s success. The current political upheaval, widespread frustration and anti-politics sentiments in the UK cannot, and should not, be ignored. The Hansard Society’s latest Audit of Political Engagement informs us that 72% of the public believe that our system of parliamentary government needs ‘quite a lot’ or ‘a great deal’ of improvement. In this context, the inclusion of public engagement in the R&R legislation is a significant opportunity to open up the design process for R&R — recognising that the Palace belongs to the nation, not politicians. Doing so can allow the public to engage in a positive, confident and meaningful conversation about the future of their democratic institutions and democracy. It would also fit with best practice for major infrastructure projects: in 2017 the Institute for Government recommended that the government should create a new organisation to involve the public in major infrastructure projects, as it would be ‘an extremely cost-effective way of giving local communities a genuine opportunity to shape infrastructure decisions’ and that it would help ‘to deliver major projects faster and more efficiently’.
After years (and even decades) of delay and indecision, the parliamentary passage of the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 was remarkably smooth. The story of the legislation, however, highlights a shifting balance between the government and parliament on R&R. It was in March this year that a Joint Select Committee, tasked with examining the draft Bill, noted that ‘Renewal brings with it an opportunity to shape parliament by listening to and harnessing the views of the views of the general public’ and recommended that public engagement form an integral part of the bill, becoming a requirement for the R&R client body, the Sponsor Board. The Government’s response instead recommended that the Sponsor Board should ‘consider how the public can be engaged to understand the R&R programme’ [italics added for emphasis] rather than ensuring its place (and accountability) in the legislature. This would have been ‘a great shame and a missed opportunity’, as Lord Bethell argued during the Second Reading debate in Lords. Simply encouraging the understanding of R&R will not encourage a meaningful discussion about the future of the palace and the people’s democracy – and suggests a top-down approach to engaging with the public. Instead, the goal should be to cultivate a genuinely open conversation about the manner in which the shape of our buildings shapes our politics – and the extent to which change might be required. The importance of this opportunity was stressed by Baroness Andrews during the House of Lords committee stage:
‘What we are considering here, for all the reasons we know and which the noble Lord has again spelt out, is a national project of the greatest public benefit that we could conceive of. By not acknowledging that in the Bill or making clear plans to involve and listen to the voice of different communities around the country, we are missing a massive opportunity. We also neglect our public duty’.
The responsibility for the decision to not include public engagement as part of the legislation remained unclear during the early legislative stages, and this did not go unnoticed. Former Leader of the Lords (and Co-Chair of the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster), Baroness Stowell of Beeston, stated as such during the Second Reading of the Bill in the House of Lords:
‘Who within Parliament is responsible for leading the thinking on this and making sure that the public get a proper say in how Parliament will be different in a restored Palace of Westminster?’
Instead of public engagement, the focus of the government’s approach to R&R was originally on the need to deliver ‘value for money’ (VFM), which was mentioned no less than 15 times in their response to the pre-legislative scrutiny. In contrast, ‘democracy’ was only mentioned twice. The Government’s idea of ‘value’ appeared to be focused on the monetary and financial elements, rather than the state of democracy and politics in the UK – and the significant opportunity to democratise the project through public engagement. From a VFM perspective, a well-resourced and proactive public engagement strategy would use only a miniscule fraction of the overall costs for a project of this nature. The attempt to save money in this respect would have only resulted in a false economy.
Whilst the House of Commons Commission did hold a public consultation recently, on work linked to the R&R programme (a refurbishment programme on the parliamentary estate known as the Northern Estate Programme), we have argued that this approach is minimal and perhaps tokenistic. Part of the Northern Estate Programme includes the creation of a temporary Commons chamber, to be used while the Palace of Westminster is completely decanted during R&R. The consultation did not, however, ask about the chamber directly, and instead asked about the possible facilities that could be available around the chamber, or the three possible options for railing designs around the estate. Images of the proposed chamber are presented in which the temporary chamber is a near replica to the original, suggesting that this is no opportunity to trial new layouts, or to explore different design options and ways of doing politics. Instead, as the consultation openly stated, ‘the temporary Chamber has been carefully designed to replicate the familiar character and layout of the existing House of Commons Chamber’.
There is also added confusion due to the current governance structures of the refurbishment, as the R&R legislation was presented in each House by the government while the NEP consultation was launched by the House of Commons Commission. It is therefore difficult to ascertain who led this approach to the decant chamber layout – and why. A process of meaningful engagement could have tackled the politics of restoration and renewal head-on by asking the public about the decant chamber directly – what sort of layout they would like to see and why. This type of approach would correspond with Speaker Bercow’s previous comments on the topic:
‘[D]uring decant when colleagues will necessarily operate in a temporary, alternative Chamber, different ways of doing politics might usefully be trialled…. The only limitations on us are those which we allow to constrain our ambitions and our imagination. Moreover, in shaping our own thoughts on the look, the feel, the scope and the potential of a Parliament which is for the people, let’s ask them for theirs. There is ample scope for a big national conversation with people of all age groups, parts of the country and walks of life about the kinds of attributes they want a renewed Parliament to exhibit.’
The opportunity offered by such an approach may still be possible. At the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill’s Report Stage, on 3 September, two amendments for public engagement were agreed upon in the House of Lords that demonstrate a clear shift in the focus of R&R, embracing public engagement at the heart of Parliament, and therefore democracy:
‘In performing the duties under subsection (2)(a) and (b), the Sponsor Body must make arrangements for seeking the views of— (a) people employed in or for the purposes of either House of Parliament,(b) people working for members of either House of Parliament (whether or not for payment), and(c) members of the public’.
‘the need to ensure that the Parliamentary building works are carried out with a view to facilitating improved public engagement with Parliament and participation in the democratic process (especially by means of remote access to Parliament’s educational and outreach facilities and programmes)’
The amendments were tabled jointly by Labour peer (and former Cabinet minister) Lord Blunkett, and the Leader of the Lords, Baroness Evans of Bowes Park. This again indicates a promising change of approach from the government to R&R, working with parliamentarians, rather than dismissing them (as the response to the Joint Committee had suggested). It also highlights the continued importance of cross-party working and the credibility of senior parliamentarians on R&R: two factors that were crucial to the surprise approval for the programme in the Commons last year.
The revised legislation reflects the fact that R&R is not simply a construction project. The Palace is not just a symbol of our democracy but it also has a very real effect on the proceedings within it. The design of the building promotes a very specific way of doing politics that fails to be welcoming to, or even representative of, a great proportion of the public. When created, the Palace was designed by and for nineteenth-century gentlemen. As Joni Lovenduski stated in her classic 2005 book, Feminising Politics, ‘for a long time Westminster was one of those places where men gathered with other men. Its ways were the ways of the gentlemen’s clubs and public schools’. R&R could therefore address the longstanding significant issues with the current structure, rituals, traditions and behaviours that exist within Westminster, and it offers the opportunity to open up parliament to the people it serves, as recommended in Professor Sarah Childs’ 2016 report ‘The Good Parliament’.
The promise of R&R and the role of public engagement in the programme is a vital opportunity to help close the gap that appears to have emerged between the governors and the governed. Whilst R&R has a primary objective of protecting the physical infrastructure of the building, an open, positive conversation could command public confidence and help address the increasing socio-political pressures, and deliver a Parliament that is fit for the future. In order to ensure success, Westminster needs to regain its confidence and prove that the value of democratic politics far exceeds the cost of maintaining the building, even during a time of national austerity. With the inclusion of public engagement in the R&R programme and legislature, a central vision and a confident political foundation can be put into place where the public can have a voice and participate in the future of their democracy.
The passing of the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019, with public engagement at the heart of the legislation, thus suggests that there is scope for R&R to offer an opportunity not to simply restore and protect the past but instead is an opportunity to embrace a positive vision of the future. In this sense, the emphasis can be on both restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster.
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About the authors
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
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. She tweets as @A_Meakin
Professor Matthew Flinders is founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield and is also Chair of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom.