It’s the nightmare scenario inching dangerously closer to reality: the Palace of Westminster – one of the world’s most recognisable buildings – is engulfed in flames and burns to the ground.
The blaze starts somewhere in the 700-odd kilometres of outdated cabling and quickly rips through the so-called “mother of parliaments”. The 900-year-old Westminster Hall – scene of the deposition of Richard II and trial of Charles I – is destroyed; its priceless oak roof reduced to ash. The House of Commons – bombed during World War II, rebuilt by a defiant Winston Churchill and witness to fateful moments in British political history – is also lost. The magnificent neo-Gothic facade soon collapses into the River Thames. And the smoke is so thick and putrid that it obscures the clockface of Big Ben and chokes London for days.
After years of neglect, Britain’s most iconic building has fallen into such a sad state that its future is now in jeopardy and an inferno to rival last year’s tragedy at the Notre-Dame tragedy in Paris is increasingly likely. The risk is so high that a team of wardens have been employed to patrol 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
But its heating, ventilation, water, drainage and electrical systems are also obsolete and could fail at any moment, rendering the UNESCO world heritage-listed estate an uninhabitable global embarrassment.
The plan to save it from ruin, though, is fantastically expensive, highly disruptive and increasingly polarising as the coronavirus pandemic pushes the United Kingdom into its worst recession on record.
MPs in 2018 voted to leave the building entirely for at least six years while the palace undergoes a renovation expected to cost, at minimum, £4 billion ($7.3 billion) – roughly three times the replacement value of Parliament House in Canberra. They settled on constructing a temporary House of Commons, House of Lords and offices for hundreds of displaced parliamentarians and staff in a cluster of nearby buildings, adding a further £1.6 billion to the overall restoration bill. In a coup, Australian firm Lendlease snared the contract to run the relocation endeavour.
Everything was proceeding as planned until twin events threw a cloud over the rebuild. Firstly, the economic fallout from COVID-19 has hit Britain harder than any other European nation and the idea of spending billions on a building many associate with the country’s turbulent politics and unpopular politicians is seen as a tough sell.
“You have to separate the two things though,” says Liz Peace, the chair of the special body set up to manage the restoration. “There is, shall we say, some distrust in politics and the system. And when you ask people about the Parliament, they often conflate the institution and the building.
“You tend to get a reaction like, ‘oh I’d send the lot of them to York’ or whatever and you say, ‘ok, what about the Westminster building, though?’ and they say, ‘oh no, we definitely have to save the building!’.
“It is very much part of Britishness that the building must be preserved while people also take a swipe at the political system which occupies it.”
Secondly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s landslide election victory in December has injected a new dynamic into what will be the biggest and most complex restoration ever undertaken in the UK. Just a fraction of his current cabinet supported the original vote to ‘decant’ from the building while it is renovated, and new MPs who swept to office last year- particularly from working class northern England – have never had a say on the project.
Johnson has been making noises about maybe moving the House of Lords – a chamber of about 830 unelected peers – to the northern city of York while the palace is restored. He’s also asked for a fresh review to consider whether both houses could stay in place while the rebuilding happens around them. That option could blow the works timetable out to as long as 32 years, when a full decant could see it done in six.
Peace believes MPs broadly support the restoration of the building but knows a new debate is brewing about the best way to do it.
“They want to get it done – that’s a reassuring message. The big worry is going to be persuading people that a rolling program of work with MPs and Lords in situ is not the way to do it. I personally think that would be a nightmare.”
Chris Bryant, a Labour MP who has spent years investigating the state of the building and is one of Parliament’s biggest advocates for a full decant and renovation, is frustrated by the government’s apparent hesitance.
“I feel as though we are going around and around in circles because nobody can be courageous enough to just get on with it,” he says.
“The interesting thing is that all the opinion polling, for the 10 years we’ve been engaged with this, has all been very positive in favour of looking after the building. Most British people know it is a much-loved, iconic building. If you want to show that a film is taking place in London, you show the Palace of Westminster, don’t you?”
Bryant and a cross-party committee of MPs spent months investigating the need to repair the parliamentary zone, which is largely made up of buildings constructed after a fire razed an earlier iteration in 1836. Architect Charles Barry won a competition to design the replacement and was assisted by Augustus Welby Pugin, a genius of the revived Gothic Perpendicular style used throughout the building. The final product is a sprawling labyrinth with a floorplate the size of 16 football fields. It has 1100 rooms, 100 staircases, 4000 windows, five kilometres of passageways and seven main floors.
The MPs found that despite its grand external appearance, inside is a sorry tale of decay, disrepair and dilapidation. A 2012 study arrived at this damning conclusion: “If the palace were not a listed building of the highest heritage value, its owners would probably be advised to demolish and rebuild.”
It is riddled with asbestos. The original cast iron roofs are not watertight and are flaking. The palace has 65 different levels over its seven main floors but only 12 per cent of the building is accessible to wheelchair users. Only one lift complies with safety and accessibility standards.
Steam systems, gas lines and water pipes are often laid one on top of another, alongside electricity wires, broadcasting cables and other equipment. Pipes carrying steam from the boilers date to the 1930s. The sewerage ejector system installed in 1888 is still in use today. Half of all mechanical and electrical systems will be at high risk of failure within five years. Most of the 700 kilometres of cabling needs to be fixed. And more than 40,000 problems have been reported since the start of 2017.
It gets worse. The palace lacks fire ‘compartmentation’ – hard barriers between floors and walls to slow the spread of fire between different sections of the estate and also give people time to evacuate. Compartmentation was one of the measures recommended for all palaces in Britain after the Windsor Castle blaze.
The annual cost of maintenance rose from £62 million in 2016 to £127 million in 2019, totalling £369 million across the four-year period. MPs said throwing more money at the backlog was like trying to fill a bathtub with a thimble while the water is draining out of the plughole at the other end.
The good news is that the building is structurally sound and reports of it collapsing or slowly sliding into the Thames aren’t correct. The real trouble is hidden from public view – so much so that nearly 75 per cent of the repair bill will go towards replacing basic services. The rest will pay for heritage conservation and some minor cosmetic changes.
If the Palace of Westminster was a car, the body would be solid enough but the engine, transmission, suspension, battery and brakes would all be stuffed.
Bryant and the other MPs came to the conclusion that the most effective and cheapest way to get the job done was to tackle it in one hit, and ask the occupants to temporarily leave. The vote to approve the plan was a big decision for many ministers and backbenchers who fear they will leave the building and never return to it.
The cross-party committee also explored options to house a temporary Parliament while the sprawling palace is fixed. Nearly all presented insurmountable problems.
The cavernous Westminster Hall – which survived the 1836 fire – was examined as a potential location for a chamber but was ruled out because the historic stone floor would be unable to cope with the weight. Public squares and streets in Westminster were considered for a temporary structure but rejected due to security risks, planning and heritage barriers. Bizarre suggestions for a floating Parliament on the Thames were knocked on the head for the same reasons. Horse Guards Parade, a large flat open space that hosts Trooping the Colour on the Queen’s official birthday, was also ruled out.
In the end, MPs opted to renovate a cluster of buildings directly opposite Big Ben, known as the Northern Estate. The buildings are largely owned by the parliament anyway and also in need of renovation. The idea is to refurbish and configure the Northern Estate buildings so they can house a new-look House of Commons, offices for MPs and parliamentary staff. The House of Lords would take up residence in the nearby Queen Elizabeth II conference centre.
Advocates of the Northern Estate plan say the buildings need work anyway and think the temporary House of Commons could be turned into a debating chamber for school students or a museum after MPs move back to the palace.
Critics, though, see it is a massive waste of money and want a cheaper option for the temporary accommodation. If a more thrifty solution isn’t found, the rejuvenation of the Palace of Westminster could be delayed and the risk of catastrophe will continue to rise.
“If this project was a shocking waste of taxpayers’ money before the pandemic, it now looks even more hopelessly out of touch because spending billions of pounds upgrading a crumbling palace following a decade of austerity is one of the reasons why the public talk about Westminster being out of touch and not chiming with everyday life,” says David Linden, a Scottish National Party MP.
“With an entire generation now facing economic armageddon and the deficit set to rise to double what it was during the financial crisis, this decision really could not look more crass.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons and close ally of Johnson, agrees the palace needs urgent work but says MPs have no real clue what the total bill will be and how long the project will take. Some think the total cost could easily exceed £10 billion. A £29 million refurbishment of Big Ben has already blown out to £80 million, making MPs even more nervous. And there are concerns the timeline will also explode – much like how Barry’s initial estimate of a six-year construction in the mid-1800s ended up taking closer to three decades.
A review is now underway to look at whether the Northern Estate is actually the best option for a temporary parliament and whether a full decant is still needed. Proponents of the original plan like Bryant fear the review could be a catalyst for delays and will inevitably conclude that the only way to do the work is for everyone to temporarily leave.
“The last thing we want is for the building to be permanently wrapped up in scaffolding for decades and decades to come, which is the danger of a partial decant process where we stay in the building while the work goes on around us,” he says.
Bryant cites the Notre-Dame fire, which took hold during a major renovation, and the devastating 1992 Windsor Castle blaze as examples of the risks to a building and its occupants during restorations.
“The most dangerous time of all is trying to keep a building open and do work,” he says. “It would just be so easy for a fire to take hold in Parliament and rip through it. We’ve got more wood panelling and material that would take the fire from one part of the palace to another than Notre-Dame ever did.
“I’m so fed up with people who just go ‘oh no, we’ll just stay in and I’m sure we can find a way of doing it’. Actually, that is the riskiest for personnel and it is the riskiest for our finances.”
Whatever the decision, the program will be managed by the so-called Sponsor Body, a specially convened agency similar to the one set up to deliver the 2012 London Olympics.
Peace, a respected figure in Britain’s property industry and the chair of the Sponsor Body, says the review should not be a source of frustration but a chance to rally behind the project and get it right. She already senses the biggest hurdle to parliamentary support for the renovation.
“I think our first step in the review we are doing at the moment is to look at whether and how we could achieve the decant more quickly and more cheaply,” she says.
“I’d like to be able to achieve it more quickly, because then we could get cracking on the palace as soon as possible. And if we can achieve it more quickly, we can probably achieve it more cheaply and it will become more acceptable. MPs will be out for less time if we get on with it, and then hopefully we can build a consensus around how we do it.”
Time is running out.
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.