For decades there has been broad consensus around the critical need to restore and renew the Palace of Westminster, an iconic UNESCO world heritage site of great historical, cultural and political significance. This is our second report on this essential, multi-billion pound, infrastructure programme.
Progress is not only unacceptably slow, but the likely start date for major works has been pushed back by many years because of repeated attempts to revisit the basis of the programme. Although some urgent works could be undertaken earlier, there is still no clear indication of when major works may start. Recent decisions to remove the Sponsor Body have created significant uncertainty and value for money risk. Nugatory spending, including £140 million to install temporary fire safety systems, is already evident. The uncertainty over progress and the lack of clarity over what will replace the Sponsor Body means skills and expertise critical to the Programme are already being lost.
Recent events have not demonstrated the transparency, openness, accountability, or evidence-based decision-making we expect. There is an unacceptable cloak of secrecy around the programme. The House authorities’ failure to manage asbestos incidents transparently, or with alacrity, underlines an approach which does not welcome scrutiny. Added to this, we saw no evidence to justify the House of Commons Commission’s initial proposal to abolish the Sponsor Body, a decision which reverses decisions made by both Houses of Parliament. Its suggestion that the House authorities oversee the works does not seem viable given their historical performance with Portcullis House and more recently the Elizabeth Tower renovation, which is almost triple its original £29 million budget.
Given this backdrop, and the question of what a restored Palace will look like still unanswered, the programme is at a critical juncture. Parliament’s Accounting Officers need to fulfil their role by setting out publicly what they can feasibly deliver. Transparent, evidence-based decisions must be made quickly to avoid further unnecessary cost to the taxpayer and prevent putting the safety of this iconic building and those that work in it and visit it at even greater risk. Nearly 200 years ago a fire destroyed part of this building – we do not want it to take another catastrophic incident to finally galvanise action and focus minds.