Pugin on the ritz

There’s no case for the costly decant of parliament now

Artillery Row

If the planning stages are anything to go by then not all bodes well for the upcoming and much delayed top-down renovation of the Palace of Westminster. Whether you’re an environmentalist, someone concerned for the preservation of Britain’s architectural heritage, a good governance guru, or just a plain old waste-abhorring taxpayer, the officials currently in charge of the project have thrown something into the current plans for everyone to hate.

The contention over how to solve the problem of a Victorian palace in need of a total change of mechanical and electrical systems was meant to be addressed by the Joint Committee of both houses which presented its report in 2016 and approved by the Lords and Commons early in the following yet. The committee looked at a variety of options from minor plaster-sticking to doing one half of the palace and then the next but settled on a “full decant” — kicking everyone out and doing it in one go.  A temporary Commons chamber would be built in the courtyard of Richmond House, then housing the Health Department, while the Lords could sit across Parliament Square in the government-owned Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre.

Soon, however, the plan began to unravel. Parliament obtained Richmond House off the Department for Health and initiated the Northern Estate Programme (“NEP”), independent of the Restoration and Renewal (“R&R”) programme for the Palace of Westminster even though intrinsically linked with it. NEP officials found that the plan to build an exactly sized replica of the House of Commons chamber and division lobbies would not fit into the courtyard of Richmond House if you include the oriel bay windows that project out from the division lobbies on either side.

The obvious solution to such a quandary would be not to include the bay windows, but the programme officials decided instead that Richmond House should be demolished entirely except for its facade and replaced with a new structure built to an exceptionally high specification.

It’s worth mentioning that Richmond House is a Grade II*-listed building from the 1980s, described as “one of the finest civic buildings of its era”. One of the most significant works of Sir William Whitfield, Richmond House was part of the transition that liberated modern architecture from the cold formality of Bauhaus and the imposing austerity of brutalism. Instead of all glass and steel, postmodernism legitimated the use of stone and wood, both of which are in abundance in Richmond House, which Whitfield artfully integrated with a neighbouring Georgian terrace.

Former English Heritage commissioner Piers Gough pointed out that the building was listed “precisely to prevent such casual destruction as is now proposed”. For the state to permanently demolish a Grade II*-listed buildings to meet a temporary need is “outrageous arrogance” according to Gough, and “criminal”.

But there’s also the environmental aspect to consider. The Government has pledged to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 yet the plans to demolish Richmond House will be highly costly in emissions terms. Prioritising the reuse and retrofitting of usable old buildings will be central to meeting that goal, but Richmond House hasn’t even reached its thirty-fifth birthday yet. “To demolish such a building on the Government estate,” architect and carbon consultant Simon Sturgis says, “would represent a significant waste of resources and result in significant unnecessary additional carbon emissions”.

Seeing the threat to one of post-war Britain’s most important architectural contributions, the preservation charity SAVE Britain’s Heritage set the architect Mark Hines to work finding a solution. With a little bit of flexibility, he discovered that a temporary chamber the exact size of the current Commons would indeed fit inside the Richmond House courtyard, with feasible division lobbies, wheelchair access, and the same amount of seating for MPs. This has been costed by professionals at £56 million, compared to an official estimate of at least £300 million to £400 million for demolishing and replacing Richmond House.

But the official estimate fails to take into account the cost — not to mention delay — if there is a public inquiry into the demolition of a listed building as now seems likely. The start of work has already been kicked back several years, while the Palace requires further maintenance work thanks to the delay and remains at significant risk of a fire like the one that consumed Notre Dame.

The plan is even bad for transparency and public scrutiny of the government. The press gallery’s role in a functioning parliamentary democracy is vital but the NEP’s plans would slash their allocation of space from the 160 desks they have now to just 60 or 70. The chairman of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, John Stevens of the Mail, said they were expecting to put up with less space during the transition but they hadn’t expected the cut to be that savage.

It’s not just the lower house’s plans for temporary accommodation that are causing problems: it extends to the Lords as well. On the face of it their move to the QE2 centre is sensible: it’s a large, government-owned building on Parliament Square. Shailesh Vara MP however pointed out that the conference centre is a money-making venue that brings in a significant profit to the exchequer, both through its direct fees and through the restaurants and hotels nearby that contribute through taxation on the business from conference-goers. The significant cost of this being reduced to zero wasn’t factored into the figures presented to the Joint Committee when they made their decision.

Reconfiguring the QE2 to house the Lords has been overthought without any regard to cost as well. Instead of just setting up antiphonal seating, a throne, and a woolsack in the centre’s largest room as you would expect from temporary accommodation, current plans are alleged to involve expensively knocking through another floor to replicate the height of the current chamber. Already existing catering facilities in the building will be ripped out and replaced on the top floor so that peers can have a good view as they sip their vichyssoise.

All the problems pointed out, no matter how alarming, are simply batted aside. Every time officials encounter a stumbling block they craft a needlessly excessive and exorbitantly more expensive solution. Once they begin to take the walls of the Palace apart there are bound to be surprises, and if such excess and incompetence at the planning stage is telling then the restoration will take much more time and much greater cost than it needs to.

Of course, none of this is necessary. The Dutch parliament is facing a similar renovation at the Binnenhof but they decided they will meet in the tarted-up former loading dock of their Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Perhaps we should learn some lessons from our North Sea neighbours?

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