Recanting decanting

An expensive evacuation of the Palace of Westminster has now fallen out of favour

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The catastrophic fire at Notre Dame emphasised the risk to further delaying the total renovation of the Palace of Westminster. Full of wiring, pipes and services from multiple eras — much of it unseen in crowded spaces between walls — the palace is in such parlous condition that fire watchers patrol its basements and attics 24 hours a day. 

Even so, a fire could burn for minutes before being detected, with potentially devastating results. Current London Fire Brigade policy is to save lives, not buildings. So unlike during the Blitz, once everyone is evacuated no firefighter’s life would be put at significant risk to save the structure.

Restoring a building such as the Palace of Westminster might seem simple: figure out what needs doing, kick everyone out, and crack on. Most of the Palace is office space and it is easy to redeploy parliamentarians, officers, staff, and others elsewhere — whether on the current parliamentary estate or in rented office accommodation nearby.

The crux of the matter is the need to find two plenary chambers for the Lords and Commons while the Palace is being renovated. The Joint Committee on Restoration and Renewal was created in 2015 to figure out how to do this. It presented its report in 2016. Based on the work of management consultants, it recommended a “full decant” of the Palace, moving the Lords to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre nearby and the Commons to a temporary chamber constructed in the courtyard of Richmond House (formerly home to the Department of Health).

After more than a year of discussions, these recommendations were put to a vote in 2018 and, after significant debate, approved by both Houses. Then they were promptly scrapped. It turned out that someone — whether House officials, management consultants, or outside architects and engineers is unclear in the absence of direct accountability — had got the measurements wrong and a temporary chamber, it was claimed, would not fit in Richmond House’s courtyard. 

An “expensive, ghastly, characterless, soulless bowling alley”

Instead, House of Commons officials spent millions developing a Plan B: an ambitious new building programme on Parliament’s Northern Estate (the buildings north of New Palace Yard and Big Ben). Richmond House — a perfectly usable Grade II* listed building dating only from the 1980s — would be demolished, retaining only its street frontage. In its place would be an expensive, permanent replica Commons chamber that would have become a white elephant as soon as work on the Palace was completed.

Lobby correspondents were baffled that desks from which they report on proceedings would be reduced by more than half, with the chairman of the Parliamentary Press Gallery describing the cuts as “savage”.

Environmentalists repeated the mantra that the greenest building is the one that already exists and pointed out the plan’s high carbon costs were in direct contradiction to government policy. Preservationists highlighted the folly of permanently demolishing a listed building to suit a temporary need, undermining England’s architectural heritage laws.

Exotic: The roof terrace
White elephant: the proposed Commons chamber

The design itself was ridiculous, described by Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP as an “expensive, ghastly, characterless, soulless bowling alley”. It would have been topped off by an exotic roof garden where young Tory staffers could glance menacingly at their Fabian opposite numbers (while quoting Francis Urquhart) next to a giant Bond villain style board room, the purpose of which was not entirely clear.

With bits of the Palace falling off and numerous small fires taking place every year (peaking at eight in 2018), there was an urgent need to get moving. But the Northern Estate Programme’s planning approval was likely to be drawn out by a public inquiry thanks to the proposed demolition of a listed building. Even if an inquiry approved the demolition and Westminster City Council granted planning approval — neither a certainty — the timescale for demolishing Richmond House and constructing a new building behind the retained Whitehall façade would further delay the Palace renovation.

Andrea Leadsom as Leader of the House — under whose remit the Palace of Westminster falls — was happy to wave the flawed plans through. As Speaker, John Bercow could have influenced events but he concentrated on Brexit battles instead, paying little heed to the restoration debates. In any case, it would have been out of character for him to second guess establishment groupthink neatly packaged by highly remunerated management consultants. 

Waste of space: The mooted Bond-villain style boardroom

Things changed from November 2019 when Sir Lindsay Hoyle was elected Speaker. If the Commons is often criticised for its boarding school atmosphere, Hoyle has steered an excellent course as the affable, approachable headmaster over a gang of pupils often unruly and sometimes burdened with an excessive sense of entitlement. 

His working class background gives him an automatic street cred the loquacious, tennis-mad Bercow never earned. Sir Lindsay also clearly takes joy from his work and sees the fun side of the House of Commons, while appreciating his role as an impartial chairman and upholder of the institution’s privileges that have accrued over centuries.

Hoyle found the criticisms of Plan B convincing and sought an alternative. He was helped by the appointment of Jacob Rees Mogg as Leader of the House months before Hoyle was dragged to the Speaker’s chair. Within a year, the Speaker managed to persuade the House of Commons Commission he chairs to cancel the Northern Estate Programme and moved parliamentary staff into offices in Richmond House. 

Hoyle’s pragmatism blends well with Rees Mogg’s traditionalism and the two have proved a surprisingly dynamic duo. They are now believed to be pursuing an option based on “continued presence” which has all the advantages of a full decant but solves the problem of where to put the Commons by keeping it where it is. The Commons chamber and a very small functional area around it would be completely sealed off from the rest of the Palace, where top down renovations would proceed. 

Indication of possible retained areas under continued presence plan

Aside from the green benches, there would be an office for the table clerks, toilet facilities, and of course some mechanism for producing a much needed cup of tea. A sectioned-off corridor would allow access to Portcullis House and the Northern Estate, where committee rooms already exist and more can be built. Public access would cease for the duration and, as during the pandemic, the House would operate according to hybrid proceedings to reduce the need for Members to be physically present.

The argument for “continued presence” is a purely practical one: there must be no sentimentalism about the Commons chamber itself. While its image is now enshrined in the public mind, the physical chamber is only a post war reconstruction after it took a direct hit from a German firebomb. The new chamber was slightly reduced in the ornateness of its detail but also eliminated some less sightly aspects of Pugin’s chamber.

Continued presence kills two birds with one stone both by eliminating the need to construct a temporary chamber elsewhere and by allowing renovation work to start more quickly. It has all the advantages of “full decant” in that every single electrical outlet, piece of wiring, piping and so on can still be pulled out completely. 

How much the “continued presence” option will cost is a matter of some debate. When demolishing Richmond House was the plan, officials reviewed and pooh poohed a similar proposal by architect Anthony Delarue, claiming it would add £0.9 billion to the cost. According to Delarue, however, their review misinterpreted his entire proposal, while another architect stated such a high costing only made sense if you presumed absolute worst case scenario project management. 

The current continued presence proposal has a much smaller footprint than the Delarue plan, and eliminates a long route from the Lords chamber all the way through the Palace to Portcullis House. A cost estimate should be provided to the R&R Sponsor Body in the coming months.

For most of the twentieth century, the entire Palace was closed to the public from when the Commons rose in June or July until the State Opening in November. This allowed four months during which maintenance work could take place without interfering with the operation of Parliament. Tony Blair ended this when he introduced a two week sitting in September, in between the summer recess and party conference season. 

That “Daily Mail sitting” was a sop to the tabloid idea that if the Commons isn’t sitting then MPs aren’t actually doing their job. The drive to make the Palace more revenue neutral by having tours for paying visitors and opening up dining facilities as a venue for outsiders has not helped maintenance imperatives either.

A quarter century in which none of these significant repairs could take place has added to the need for a total renovation. Right now, disruptive or noisy work is scheduled during recesses or overnight, and in some parts of the Palace work can only take place on Sundays. This obviously prolongs both the timescale and costs of what is being done. Work has also been interrupted by the lockdown, though all scheduled works were restarted in the summer of 2020 with added precautions.

Even under these circumstances, a great amount has already been achieved. A full repair on the cast iron roofing began in 2013 and should be finished by next year. Redundant pipes, ducts and wiring have been removed to allow better access for future maintenance. The sixteenth century Cloister Court has been badly affected by weather and air pollution but urgent work is ongoing to preserve and restore the medieval stone carvings. Fire safety improvement works across the Palace have seen new emergency lighting added, fire doors upgraded, and high pressure water mist systems installed. But the hydrant system is dilapidated and in need of attention.

When the Joint Committee presented its report in 2016, it envisioned the Northern Estate Programme would be nearing completion by now and the Restoration and Renewal Delivery Authority would be at the procurement stage, putting the finishing touches on the design and obtaining planning consent. None of this has come to pass.

Westminster is also the ceremonial and emotional heart of the Union and the Commonwealth

A silver lining to the delay is that significant surveys have been completed that lessen the chance of repeating mistakes made in the ongoing restoration of Big Ben in which both cost and timeframe were underestimated. The more you know beforehand, the better you can plan for when works will take place.

The Palace of Westminster is part of a unesco World Heritage Site. The Government is bound to preserve it. Calls to privatise the building, move Parliament to Nottingham or Leeds, and transform the Palace into an open access cultural attraction (does London need another?) have, luckily, fallen on deaf ears.

But Westminster is not just central to the legislative and political life of the country: it is also the ceremonial and emotional heart of the Union and the Commonwealth. The time — hopefully yet far off — must inevitably come when Westminster Hall will once more play its essential role in mourning the monarch.

Luckily this is one of the few roles which will not be impeded by renovation. Conservation work in Westminster Hall has been completed, including cleaning of walls and roofing, installation of fire systems, and external repairs to the lead roof lantern.

Regardless of what renovation option is chosen, when that black day arrives, her palace at Westminster will be ready to receive her.

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