Photo by Richard Baker
Artillery Row

What price Parliament

Renovating Westminster taxes the Leader’s ingenuity — and the public’s pocketbook

“Look at it: it’s beautiful.” Jacob Rees-Mogg gestures from the window of his parliamentary office towards the Elizabeth Tower, where recently removed scaffolding has re-exposed the most famous clockface in the world. “You can see Big Ben emerging from its cocoon. Gosh, my windows are filthy though.”

Big Ben’s restoration resulted in unexpected delays and massive cost overruns

The Leader of the House of Commons is primarily in charge of organising government business in the House, but his myriad other roles include responsibility for restoration and renewal (“R&R) of the Palace of Westminster.

While Rees-Mogg, the Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle and other officials jointly plan the restoration of the entire Palace of Westminster, Big Ben has become a problem. Its restoration relied on too little preparatory work and resulted in unexpected delays and massive cost overruns.

“I think the problem there is not actually how much money has been spent, but that the first figure was wrong,” Rees-Mogg says, arguing that if he went to his constituents and asked them if Big Ben was worth preserving and it would cost £80 million, they would of course say “yes” but “what they’re annoyed about is that they were initially told £30 million”.

Getting the costings right on the Palace’s restoration, then, is important: “We don’t want to give people nasty surprises.”

The scale of the project is vast: a mostly Victorian but partly mediaeval palace of over a thousand rooms, with thousands of works of art and items of historical interest that need to be documented and removed before work can even start.

The Houses of Parliament have been maintained and restored on an ad-hoc basis for over a century, including repairs to wartime bomb damage, while governments have frequently resisted spending taxpayer’s money on something so vast that is primarily used only by MPs and officials.

Rees-Mogg points out that though there were problems over Big Ben, other aspects of restoration are going well. “The roofing is really important,” he says. When the Palace was rebuilt in the 19th century, the cast iron rooftop was such a large venture the House of Commons even considered buying foundries to produce the quantity they needed. Every single iron roof-plate has been meticulously removed, examined, restored or replaced, and put back where it was. “Fitted back together like a giant jigsaw,” Rees-Mogg says, bragging that the roofing has been finished “before time and under budget”.

All it needed was a lick of paint and a bit of cosmetic work instead

“The most important work is the work nobody knows about, the fire suppression system. How many miles of piping, is it eight miles of piping?” The new mist system’s primary objective is to retard the spread of any fire to ensure people can get out alive, rather than preserving the building itself. “But if you go through the basement, you will see that it’s been fully installed and has a good chance of saving the building as well,” he reassures.

The restoration projects are far from being Rees-Mogg’s responsibility alone. But as he represents the government and therefore both the Treasury and the taxpayer his input to the discussions carries weight. The Lord Speaker, the Speaker of the Commons, the Restoration and Renewal Sponsor Body and the Delivery Authority all have their say as well.

Rees-Mogg is particularly gushing when it comes to Sir Lindsay Hoyle: “Oh, the Speaker’s brilliant. A great man to work alongside. Very clear-sighted and very focussed on doing things properly while ensuring value for money.” On everything to do with the restoration, Rees-Mogg says he and Sir Lindsay have “seen very much eye-to-eye”.

Fire suppression work needed to be installed in the Speaker’s House more urgently than waiting years for the full restoration to begin. “Lindsay had to move out and I was talking to him to see where he could go. We discovered that actually two of three buildings on the estate are empty,” Rees-Mogg recalls. “There was an R&R scheme to make one of these buildings the Speaker’s House, which would be over twenty million pounds — twenty million pounds — even though it was only going to be temporary whilst R&R was going on.”

After taking a look, the Speaker and the Leader of the House helped to scrap officials’ invasive plans for tearing up a Georgian townhouse and putting a lift through it; all it needed was a lick of paint and a bit of cosmetic work instead. “It cost five per cent of their £20 million to get all three of these houses back into use,” Rees-Mogg remembers, “a huge saving.”

Likewise, cancelling the grandiose Northern Estate Programme meant that MPs’ offices could be moved into Richmond House. This has allowed the restoration of the Norman Shaw parliamentary buildings “a great chunk of which fell onto, I think, the now Paymaster General’s car” to be brought forward with an earlier completion date of 2025.

The proposed Richmond House as seen from Canon Row.

“We want to get on with things,” Rees-Mogg says, “and we don’t want endless delays stopping sensible things happening.”

Rees-Mogg cautions against a blank check for modernisation

All the same, the North East Somerset MP is sceptical about tales of impending doom and disaster. Having previously served on the Joint Committee set up by the Lords and Commons to decide how to proceed with restoration, Rees-Mogg says they “were told that all the systems would collapse by 2021” if a plan wasn’t acted upon immediately. “And here we are, and we still seem to be surviving,” he adds, saying it makes him “a little cautious that some of the propaganda around the scheme may be over-egged”.

The Leader of the House immediately pooh-poohs any suggestion that bad planning or the cancelling of exorbitant projects reflect an institutional culture of incompetence in the Restoration and Renewal Programme. “I think it’s all down to the client. It always is actually, even in the simplest building project that one does oneself, it is all down to the client.” What matters most is giving a clear instruction, saying what you want, and being explicit about your cost parameters. “And when you’ve given your instruction will you then stick to it, rather than saying, ‘Oh, actually I’ve changed my mind — I want something completely different.’ Which will always cost you a fortune.”

The options on how to restore the Palace of Westminster have now been whittled down to “full decant” (kicking everyone out and doing it up in one go), or “continued presence” (full decant minus a small carve-out of the Commons chamber and a few necessary offices around it, solving the expensive problem of where the lower house will meet during restoration).

Rees-Mogg claims that “the people who wanted the most extravagant schemes” on the Joint Committee were the ones arguing passionately in favour of full decant. From a moderniser’s perspective, it could offer the chance not just to restore but to redefine how Britain’s parliament and therefore its ancient constitution works. As Churchill famously suggested, we shape our buildings, and then they shape us.

Rees-Mogg cautions against a blank check for modernisation. “I want to see the Palace of Westminster essentially back to where it started and its underlying beauty revealed. This is a great building. You don’t want to muck about with it.”

Others have suggested Parliament needs to dump the Palace of Westminster completely and move to a modern building, or even leave London. “There’s a sort of romantic side of me that quite likes that idea that Parliament historically moved around the country,” he admits. “But the truth is that London is as accessible as anywhere. I mean, for better or worse, all our infrastructure ends up in London, doesn’t it? The fastest trains, the best motorways, the main airport — all of that really. We are a very London-centric country. Now I think it’s bonkers because Somerset’s so much nicer, but there we are.”

The Leader of the House refuses to number himself among the sceptics

“If you were to say, well, why don’t we move to the O2 centre, so still in London but a modern building, I think on the cost front, you wouldn’t save anything because this building would still have to be restored.” For the Leader of the House, the Palace of Westminster is “a bold expression of our belief in democracy”. He points out the murals on the walls of St Stephen’s Hall, site of the original Commons chamber before the 1834 fire: “You’ve got Magna Carta, you’ve got Cardinal Wolsey, and India, you’ve got the great events of our island story.”

Indication of possible retained areas under continued presence plan

These paintings, he argues, are “a proud declaration that this is a great country doing something important”, and that is being a “beacon of democracy”. As Rees-Mogg sees it, this encourages humility: “How can you walk through Westminster Hall where Thomas More was tried for his life, where Charles I was tried for his life, where Richard II was deposed by a House of Commons sitting in a hall that he’d only just put the roof on and not realise that there are much greater figures who have been here before and yet have been humbled.

“What I would like to see is Restoration and Renewal in whatever form, thoroughly underway as soon as possible. I think everyone knows it needs to be done — there isn’t an argument about that — and it’s just cracking on it. But it’s making sure it’s affordable. We must bear in mind the comparisons. I think Buckingham Palace is coming in at under £400 million. Big Ben’s taken — the Elizabeth Tower — has taken about £80 million, and that gives us some sort of guide as to the cost. We cannot allow costs to spiral massively.”

In a time when the cost of living is rising and state spending has reached new heights, many are sceptical that the government and image-conscious Members of Parliament will want to be seen in the tabloids as investing hundreds and millions of taxpayers’ pounds on themselves.

The Leader of the House refuses to number himself among the sceptics this time. “I’m optimistic that, as long as the Speaker is the Speaker, we will get things done.”

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