The Palace of Westminster, a masterpiece of Victorian and medieval architecture and engineering, faces an impending crisis which we cannot responsibly ignore. It is impossible to say when this will happen, but there is a substantial and growing risk of either a single, catastrophic event, such as a major fire, or a succession of incremental failures in essential systems which would lead to Parliament no longer being able to occupy the Palace.
The issue is not structural: although extensive erosion and water damage to the stonework are visible throughout the Palace, there is no significant risk of foundations failing, or of walls or roofs collapsing. The main problem lies in the building’s mechanical and electrical (M&E) services: the vast network of pipes, cables and machinery that carry heat, ventilation, air-conditioning, power, water, data, and dozens of other essential services around the building. Many of these systems were last replaced in the late 1940s and reached the end of their projected life in the 1970s and 1980s. The patch-and-mend approach which has seen the building through the decades since then is no longer sustainable. Intervention on a much larger scale is now required. Unless an intensive programme of major remedial work is undertaken soon, it is likely that the building will become uninhabitable.
Our role has been to examine the need for a programme of works and to recommend how it should proceed. Having reviewed all the evidence currently available, and taken new evidence from experts, we are convinced of the need for the works. We have also concluded that, in principle, a full decant of the Palace of Westminster is the best delivery option. However, there is significantly more work to be done by professionals before budgets can be set, buildings are vacated and works can commence. We therefore recommend that both Houses give their approval for the immediate next step required for the Programme to proceed to the next stage, which is the establishment of an arm’s-length Delivery Authority, overseen by a Sponsor Board. After validating our conclusions and testing the feasibility of our recommendations, the Delivery Authority will produce the detailed designs and business case, before both Houses are invited to make a final decision on the Programme.
Most of today’s Palace of Westminster was built after the fire of 1834 as a monument to the unwritten British constitution, incorporating the Commons, the Lords and the ceremonial functions of the Monarch in a single building. It stands on the site where Parliament has sat almost continuously since the Middle Ages and incorporates the medieval buildings that survived the fire, including the 13th century undercroft chapel of St Stephen’s and the early 16th century cloisters. The oldest part of the Palace, the Great Hall, or Westminster Hall, was built by William II (William Rufus) at the end of the 11th Century, with a hammer beam roof installed by Richard II at the end of the 14th Century. Westminster Hall has hosted the royal courts of law; the deposition of Richard II; the state trials of (among others) Sir William Wallace, Sir Thomas More, the second Earl of Essex, Guy Fawkes, the Earl of Strafford, Charles I, the Jacobite rebels and Warren Hastings; the coronation banquets of monarchs from Richard the Lionheart in 1189 to George IV in 1821; the lying-in-state of notable figures including many monarchs, William Gladstone, Sir Winston Churchill, and the victims of the R101 airship crash; and addresses to both Houses of Parliament by Her Majesty the Queen and dignitaries including, in recent years, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi and Pope Benedict XVI.
The Victorian building, with its magnificent neo-Gothic riverside frontage, its two impressive towers (the Elizabeth Tower containing ‘Big Ben’ and the Victoria Tower containing the Parliamentary Archives) and its clever incorporation of the medieval buildings, is one of the most famous and most frequently photographed and filmed buildings in the world. Its international significance has been recognised in its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site (one of 30 in the UK and its overseas territories). In addition to housing Parliament during the Boer and Crimean Wars, the two World Wars and the conflicts in Suez, Korea, the Falklands, the Gulf and Iraq, it has witnessed enormous political change, including reform of safety and working conditions in Victorian factories and mines, the extension of voting rights to working men and to women, the abolition of ‘back-to-back’ housing, the creation of the modern police service and the NHS, the introduction of the secret ballot and free compulsory education for all children. It has become a part of the fabric of our democracy.
The Palace of Westminster does not belong to MPs and Peers, it belongs to the people of the United Kingdom. Those who have the privilege of serving in the Lords and Commons are merely its custodians. As such it is a vital part of our national heritage and it is important that this historic building is preserved, maintained and adapted for the needs of today and tomorrow for the nation as a whole.
Although the building is formally designated as a Royal Palace, those who work in it will be all too familiar with stories of flooding, power failures, fire hazards, freezing-cold rooms in the winter and boiling-hot offices in the summer. These problems are due to the age of the building’s M&E services, most of which are hidden away, either in the basements underneath the Palace, or behind walls, under floor voids, within ceilings and in vertical shafts known as risers.
Much of the M&E plant dates from the mid-20th Century; some of it dates from the Victorian era. Many of the systems reached the projected end of their lifecycles in the 1970s and 1980s. They have been patched up year after year, often with new cables and pipes laid on top of old, and with little knowledge of what the existing services are, where they go, or whether they are still live. So far the services have, for the most part, continued to work. But there is universal agreement among all the experts whom Parliament has consulted that the risk of a major failure is now unacceptably high, and it is growing. Repairing and replacing the M&E services is further complicated by the significant amount of asbestos present throughout the Palace. Asbestos is believed to be in almost every vertical riser, as well as in many plant rooms, corridors and under-floor voids. This adds greatly to the complexity, cost and timetable of much of the necessary work.
Complete and sudden failure of the M&E services—the kind that would require the Palace to be abandoned immediately—is a real possibility. This could be a single, catastrophic failure, such as the complete loss of electrical power to one of the Chambers, a devastating fire, extensive flooding, or a gas leak requiring a total evacuation. We could also see a series of smaller, incremental failures which, over a period of months or years, would seriously impede, or even put a stop to, normal Parliamentary work.
Complete replacement of the Palace’s M&E systems, which is now very pressing, is therefore the main driver for the Restoration and Renewal (R&R) Programme, but there are four other streams of work which will need to be carried out alongside the M&E refurbishment: dealing with the huge amount of asbestos present throughout the building, installing proper fire compartmentation and other fire safety measures, improving accessibility by bringing the building into conformity with modern standards of disabled access, and conserving the historic fabric of the building.
It is important to stress that this work to the Palace of Westminster would have to be done, whether or not it continued to be used by Parliament. Some might argue that Parliament should move to a new building, and that the Palace of Westminster should be turned into a museum, but the essential works described above would need to be carried out anyway, unless the nation wished to tolerate the eventual loss of this iconic building. We suggest that by addressing all these works as a single programme, we will be able to rationalise and document the building services to make future maintenance easier and more cost-effective, meaning that we will never again have to undertake a programme of this size.
The Palace of Westminster is unique in its size, its position, its engineering and its security. The replacement of the M&E services alone will account for approximately 74% of the cost of the essential works.1 The other 26% (approximately) of the cost of the essential works is likely to be required for heritage conservation and other work required to meet a minimum acceptable outcome (for example, work to ensure that the Palace complies with legislation relating to public buildings). The historic nature of the Palace and the high quality of its fabric complicates any renovation work and requires careful planning and consultation with heritage stakeholders. The large volume of asbestos present throughout the building adds significantly to the cost and time required, especially as much of the contaminated space is very difficult to access. Moreover, the security requirements of the site also add considerably to the complexity and cost of the Programme.
The challenges presented by the Restoration and Renewal Programme are large, and we have taken our responsibilities as a Committee very seriously. In order to guide our work, at the beginning of our inquiry we agreed a number of key criteria, which we set out in our Call for Evidence. These were:
Our recommendations will, we believe, meet these key criteria.
The central question is how to deliver this major programme of work: as a rolling programme (Option 1), trying to sustain the work of Parliament in the middle of a building site for several decades; in two phases (Option 2), by renovating first one House, then the other; or in a single phase (Option 3), by vacating the building completely for a few years and tackling the whole site at once.
All of the very extensive evidence we have heard shows that Option 1 carries a particularly high burden of risk, and a possibility that the disruption caused to the work of Parliament by the building programme could become intolerable before the Programme was completed (which, under this Option, would probably be in the 2050s or 2060s).
Option 2, decanting the two Houses one at a time, could turn out to combine the worst of all options. This is because it would be necessary, first of all, to construct a new network of M&E plant above ground to deliver services to the occupied half of the building, before stripping out the old systems. It would involve a lot of the disruption and inconvenience of Option 1, with each House, in turn, having to operate around a busy and noisy building site in the other half of the building. The practical difficulties, as well as the security and health and safety challenges, of even one House operating on the same site as a heavy works zone for several years can scarcely be overstated. In addition to this, Parliament would still have to acquire and fit-out temporary accommodation for one House first, and then adapt it again for the other House afterwards. This would not just include the Chamber for each House, but also everything else in the part of the Palace occupied by that House, including offices for Members and staff, the library, procedural offices and other facilities. This option therefore carries high risks to the business of Parliament and is likely to be impractical.
On the basis of the evidence we have received, but subject to further validation work to be completed by the new Delivery Authority, it is clear that Option 3—complete decant of the Palace (though not the rest of the Parliamentary Estate) for the duration of the works—is the best option. It would allow the works to be completed in the shortest possible timeframe, it would minimise the risk of disruption to the day-to-day operation of Parliament, it would be likely to involve the lowest overall capital cost, it would minimise the risk to the Programme itself, and it provides the greatest scope for meeting the needs of a 21st Century Parliament.
Whilst full decant has numerous advantages over the other delivery options, the Delivery Authority will need to conduct further work in order to test and validate our preferred options for temporary accommodation. However, we are confident that full decant is achievable and that appropriate alternative accommodation can be found.
All of the options for temporary accommodation will require further work in order to establish their feasibility for use by either House, especially in terms of their cost, design and security. However, we have assessed the options at a high level and reached some preliminary conclusions on the best locations for each House.
Subject to further feasibility work, we suggest that the House of Commons could acquire Richmond House, opposite the Cenotaph on Whitehall, currently home to the Department of Health. The House of Commons is already in discussions with the Government regarding the possibility of acquiring Richmond House as part of the Commons long term property consolidation strategy, and in order to enable the Northern Estate Programme. If Richmond House were to be acquired, a temporary Chamber could be established in its inner courtyard and the rest of the House of Commons’ core operations could be consolidated in and around Portcullis House and the Northern Estate (which includes Norman Shaw North, Norman Shaw South, Derby Gate, Canon Row and 1 Parliament Street).
For the House of Lords, also subject to further feasibility work, the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, opposite Westminster Abbey, could be used to accommodate a Chamber and its associated core functions, committee rooms, and some offices for Members. Other Members could remain in their current offices in the House’s other buildings, or relocate to offices nearer the temporary Chamber, or a combination of both these options.
Some adaptations to the new spaces will inevitably be necessary on the part of both Houses, but we are confident that they will not interfere unduly with the work of Parliament and its Members.
The challenge of the Restoration and Renewal Programme is immense, but it also offers scope to deliver some significant improvements to the way the Palace works, turning a masterpiece of 19th Century architecture and design into a building that is fit for a 21st Century Parliament. Any additional improvements will need to be subject to a rigorous value-for-money assessment, but there are a number of ways in which the building can be made more suitable for the demands placed upon it by the public, staff and Members. Furthermore, there is an opportunity to deliver significant benefits for visitors, to improve the way in which members of the public can engage with the work of Parliament, and vastly to improve the way in which people with a disability can access and use the building. It would be an error for Parliament to miss this rare opportunity to deliver a more open, efficient, inclusive and outward-facing Parliamentary building.
We therefore recommend that, subject to rigorous value-for-money assessments being conducted by the Delivery Authority, alongside the essential works, both Houses should agree in principle to include in the scope of the Restoration and Renewal Programme some additional, defined improvements to the building. Our role did not involve the development of detailed designs for the Programme, which will be for the Delivery Authority and Sponsor Board to draw up. However, we do recommend some Objectives and Guiding Principles for the scope of the Programme, which we hope will assist the Sponsor Board and Delivery Authority in determining the overall scope of the Programme.
Parliament has neither the capability nor the capacity to deliver a Programme of this scale and complexity. A clearly defined governance structure will therefore need to be put in place in order to ensure that the works are carried out effectively, to time and to budget, and that they meet the necessary objectives set by both Houses. Such a governance structure will also need to be clearly accountable to Parliament, as well as responsive to the requirements of the public, Members and staff of both Houses.
We have therefore recommended a two-tier governance model, similar to that which has been proven to work well on major projects such as the London 2012 Olympics and Crossrail. In order to ensure that the interests of Parliament continue to be properly represented, a suitably empowered Sponsor Board should be established, with representation from both Houses, as well as from Government and wider society. A separate, arm’s-length Delivery Authority with the necessary technical expertise to oversee the Programme should also be established. This Delivery Authority will need to validate the preferred options recommended in this report and produce a thorough business case before the works can proceed. Once the final design, budget and schedule have been approved by Parliament in due course, the Delivery Authority will then be responsible for carrying out the work. Such a delivery model will require primary legislation and we hope that both Houses will be able to pass this legislation swiftly.
We have concluded that there is a clear and pressing need to tackle the work required to the Palace of Westminster and to do so in a comprehensive and strategic manner to prevent catastrophic failure in the next decade. We have also concluded that, in principle, a full decant of the Palace of Westminster presents the best option under which to deliver this work. In our view, conducting the works in a single phase, involving a full decant, would allow the works to be completed in the shortest possible timeframe, it would minimise the risk of disruption to the day-to-day operation of Parliament, it is likely to involve the lowest capital cost, it would minimise the risk to safety of construction operatives and occupants, it would minimise the risk to the Programme itself, and it would provide the greatest scope for meeting the needs of a 21st Century Parliament building.
However, our inquiry is just one stage in the progress of the Restoration and Renewal Programme, and it is now for the Delivery Authority to test our conclusions and to validate that a full decant is feasible, achievable and cost-effective. In order to ensure that the Programme is taken forward speedily, we recommend that an arm’s-length Delivery Authority should be established as soon as possible, which will be responsible for taking the Programme into its next phase. A Sponsor Board will also need to be established to oversee the work of the Delivery Authority and to ensure that its plans meet the requirements of both Houses of Parliament. Ultimately, the Delivery Authority will have to produce a detailed concept design, budget and schedule, which the Sponsor Board and both Houses of Parliament will need to approve before works commence. These steps are outlined in Figure 1.
Parliament now needs to face up to the challenge and take the right decisions in order to safeguard the Palace of Westminster for the future. The financial cost of the R&R Programme will be high, and Members of both Houses will have to make sacrifices and tolerate a degree of inconvenience. However, the benefits should be great: a newly-refurbished Palace of Westminster which contains all the services needed by a modern, accessible, accountable Parliament, with better access for the public who wish to visit the building and engage with the work of both Houses, but which also preserves the best of its magnificent Victorian design and medieval heritage. The consequences of continuing to neglect the fundamental problems with the building are unthinkable.
It is vital that the Restoration and Renewal Programme should not be delayed at this critical juncture. If the works are to be commenced in the early 2020s then it is essential that Parliament should proceed with the next steps quickly. We believe that both Houses must act now to restore and renew this historic building for the future, and to ensure that the Palace of Westminster is preserved for future generations.
Figure 1: Next steps for the Restoration and Renewal Programme