Perhaps it’s time for a new nursery rhyme. London Bridge might no longer be falling down (and, if it is, it’s the business of Lake Havasu City, USA where the old London Bridge is now located) but the same cannot be said about the Palace of Westminster which is slowly and sometimes even perceptibly crumbling.
The cheapest option for repairing the Palace of Westminster — home to Britain’s parliament — is said to cost £3.5 billion but could grow even higher. These extreme measures have been said to be urgent, with any further delay adding to the cost of repairs to be funded from the public purse. Many miles of wiring, gas and waste pipes are underground with the risks involved from fire and sewage leading to a possible closure of the building. As reported in The Independent in January, joint spokesman for the Committee on Restoration and Renewal, Labour MP Chris Bryant, noted that it was “ironic” that one of the “catastrophic failures” that risked endangering the building could come from a sewerage flood from the Victorian drainage system. Mr Bryant added: “The main one which we have suffered historically is fire. Some kind of water flood, either cascading down, or cascading up through from the drains is another possibility.”
A 2012 report into the state of decay declared ominously: “If the palace were not a listed building of the highest heritage value, its owners would probably be advised to demolish and rebuild.” Some estimates have concluded that doing the major repairs while both Houses of Parliament stayed put could see the work stretched out to 32 years at a cost of £5.7 billion. The palace of 1,180 rooms, 126 staircases, and two miles of corridor, is also fighting corrosion by pigeon droppings to the brickwork with the aid of its own hawk master.
A committee of MPs and peers last year recommended that the Commons and Lords move out for up to eight years while repairs are carried out. Despite the Houses of Parliament being an iconic part of the London skyline, the building is relatively new, only completed in 1834 after a fire ravaged much of the original medieval construction. Prime Minister of the Day, the Duke of Wellington, is said to have insisted it must remain on the river bank so “the mob” could never fully surround it and so that MPs and peers would always have a way of escape via the Thames. The scale of this bill could make the modern “mob” — or, more politely, the public — very unhappy indeed and MPs might be wise to keep an eye on a escape route.
After all, the figures quoted for repairs could get you a lot of things, such as:
- The new Paramount Theme park, due to open in 2022, in Dartford, Kent. The park, set beside the Thames, will feature rides around the films and television Paramount has produced, and will include a 2,000 seat theatre.
- 10 new 12 storey Hospitals like the Royal Liverpool being completed for this summer in the city.
- 4 Wembley Stadiums at £798 million each.
- 10 of the largest passenger jets, the Airbus A380 at £357 million each.
Only by setting the projected costs against comparable new constructions do you see why the repair of Westminister is politically difficult and why successive Prime Ministers have left it for their successor to decide. This is given greater political significance when you realise that the repair costs are comparable to the funding gap for social care annually by the end of the current parliament in 2020.
On the other side of the debate, MP Andrew Tyrie has said that insufficient evidence had been produced to justify the restoration plan. The Commons Treasury Committee chairman launched an inquiry in January saying the original joint committee proposal and the consultants’ report on which it was based did not provide sufficient evidence to make even a “preliminary decision” on the way forward. Not only are the objections of MPs and the caution of ministers to contend with, the triggering of Article 50 could also be delaying debate on the repair work. The costs involved during the negotiation period could rise.
The problem for all in Westminster is that figures that run into the many billions are hard to sell to an electorate who are seeing cuts across the public sector. Anger at such a colossal sum of money spent on one building would not be new. A backlash greeted the news, last November, that Buckingham Palace would cost £369 million for renovation. If the British public are quibbling about repairing the home of the Queen, MPs should get ready for a much bigger battle to save their home.