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Crumbling Parliament: The argument behind rebuilding Westminster

How do you think the headlines would look? ‘MPs vote to renovate their offices and meeting rooms at great expense whilst disability allowance and local councils get hit with cuts’. It wouldn’t exactly be a crowd pleaser. What’s more the tabloid press would be enraged every other day by the fitting of desks that cost £20 more than the average UK desk or a great curtain scandal where frivolous MPs received unnecessarily long curtains, wasting vital taxpayer’s money. News this week that the Palace of Westminster, the seat of UK politics, is a severe fire risk unless repair work is rapidly undertaken has reignited discussion (pun intended) about whether the government should, and can afford to, repair Parliament. Crumbling plaster, leaky pipes, poor cabling and asbestos all plague the building day by day taking the estimated repair bill up to £5.7 billion and a total repair time of around 30 years. Speaker John Bercow commissioned a report into the work that needed to be done to the palace, which is a grade one listed building currently also suffering from subsidence, has a slightly wonky tower housing the bell Big Ben and, due to poor heating, MPs reportedly wearing coats in their offices round the clock in winter. Despite rolling repairs constantly being done around parliament, the building work just isn’t enough to tackle the vast scale of the issues facing the building that was redesigned in the mid-1800s after a devastating fire. The issue remains though that due to its age, Westminster is a building currently far too outdated to be a functional parliament. There’s not even enough seats in the Commons Chamber for all 650 MPs and most members work in offices across the road in Portcullis House.

If the members are moved out of Westminster for six years the price of the repairs drops to an ever so slightly less eye watering £3.5 billion. This raises interesting questions though because the question of where to put all 1410 MPs and Peers for such a long period of time is a bone of contention. Security and practicality dictate that somewhere in London like the Olympic Park Media Centre would almost certainly be chosen but the Labour MP Frank Field has suggested that parliament should move up north to Birmingham Library or Manchester Town Hall. It would certainly make George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse plan seem more tangible than ever before and all the logistical chaos that would ensue would be rather entertaining for many for the first few weeks. Parliament hasn’t undergone large scale restoration since the Second World War when the Commons Chamber and Westminster Hall were bombed and the decision was taken to only fight to save the Hall. The time for renovation certainly is now if the project is to take between 15 and 30 years and that’s before you take into account that each year the price of renovation goes up and up. This historical building truly is a national icon and certainly is, and should always be, the home of UK politics but it is in desperate need of restoration before substantial, irreversible damage is done. Snuff is on offer to MPs as the enter the chamber due to a historic tobacco ban, the mark left by the Queen’s envoy Black Rod on the Commons door is a historic fixture and the members cloak room with storage for swords would be tragic to lose for such a traditional national, proud of its history and politics.

The Library of Birmingham. Photo: Neil Thompson | The New Library of Birmingham

Sceptics talk of an oval shaped chamber like the newly built Scottish Parliament building. It’s certainly less confrontational and less theatrical so why not conform to the rest of the world and build an entirely new glass temple of politics? Sceptics on the other side of the fence say let the MPs continue to suffer, in an age of political apathy there’s no need for refurbishment when politicians are so unpopular.

The Tower of Manchester Town Hall. Photo: Rich Daley

There’s something extremely British about face to face politics which is promoted by the current layout of the chamber where the party benches face one another. We get through our differences by looking each other in the eye and debating them out in a historic palace for the good of the nation. Equally, in the U.S the dome on top of the Capitol Building, the parliament of the USA, is currently undergoing repairs that are seen as necessary to the maintenance of a national landmark and yet Congress consistently has national approval ratings at around 6%. What is clear is that classic British ambivalence and modesty has led to the Palace of Westminster falling into disrepair as an ‘oh we’ll do it later’ mentality has prevailed. The parliament building of the UK is iconic and no one wants Big Ben (formally known as Elizabeth Tower) to fall down, or worse yet be torn down. The answer to what should be done therefore is that the repair work simply must happen. Public uproar surrounding the cost will last for months at the most and will be far more muted than the disappointment that would surround the idea of leaving the palace to collapse and eventually be demolished. One suggestion is that the members move to one of the many constructed film sets of the Commons Chamber to go about their business, but I believe the best solution to this issue is to have a partial relocation whilst construction work is undertaken. The Lords should vacate whilst their chamber is updated and then the MPs should move into the newly refurbished House of Lords briefly whilst the House of Commons is updated. What’s more the benefits of this build don’t have to be exclusively for the lucky few who get elected or appointed to parliament. Proposals by committees looking into the refurbishment of the palace recommend also building a new education centre, conference rooms and a modern lift to the top of Big Ben. Opening up Parliament like never before and making the building historic and old on the outside but with state of the art features on the inside – just like the sceptics who want the palace torn down have been calling for.

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  1. Relocation would have to be to a location in London. London is currently the centre of all our central government activity in this country. Ministers and shadow ministers work in London in their departments, and MPs attend committee meetings in London too, when not in their constituency or Parliament. Moving the House of Commons and the House of Lords to another city would be logistically difficult and would increase expenses spending to meet travel costs (recent history has shown that expenses are not particularly popular with the electorate). Both the Commons and the Lords are no longer fit for purpose – not every elected MP or peer can be seated in the chambers to debate the orders of the day. The solution is going to have to be this – a new 21st century parliament building which meets the needs of today’s parliament, semicircle layout, renovation of the Houses of Parliament which can then be opened up to the public, and used for private events to help pay its way. Billions of pounds will need to be spent regardless either through continual fixes and stop-gap patching up, or through complete renovation and reconstruction, so why not plan this properly. Unless we decentralise the whole of the running of government and its various departments, moving Parliament temporarily to another city is just an empty gesture which will encourage MPs/peers to either ignore Commons/Lords debates in person, or lead to a rise in travel expense claims, and waste time. Keep Parliament in London, spend the billions on an effective and efficient new building, and reap the tourist cash on the old building.


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