There is no dispute that the Palace of Westminster is at risk of catastrophic failure. Despite the best efforts of the staff involved in repair and upkeep, the services and fabric of the building require a comprehensive overhaul, and both Houses have approved the decision to decant from the building so that the repairs and restoration can proceed as smoothly and swiftly as possible.
The draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill is a vital preliminary to this work. It would establish the bodies supervising the works—a Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority—and the mechanisms for providing accountability to both Houses and to the taxpayer. It sets out the requirements which the Sponsor Body must have in mind when drawing up a scheme of works, and establishes the mechanisms for financial and other controls of the process.
We are content with the broad outline of what is proposed. However, we have made a number of recommendations which we believe would improve the arrangements, in particular around the ambition of the project and the essential areas of communication and accountability.
There is broad consensus on the vital repairs and improvements that need to be made to the Palace, and a large percentage of the cost of the project will be devoted to just these. There has been less discussion of the opportunity that such a comprehensive programme offers for enhancing aspects of Parliament. These range from the clear requirement to improve accessibility for people with mobility and other forms of disability, to the opportunities to improve the experience of those who visit the Palace, to the possibility of thinking imaginatively to increase the accessibility of Parliament to the citizens of the UK in general through the imaginative use of technology for outreach and improved educational facilities. There is a real opportunity here for increasing public understanding of and engagement with Parliament as an institution.
A programme of consulting Members of both Houses about the scheme is already under way. There is also an opportunity for accessing the knowledge and enthusiasm of staff (of both Houses, of Parliamentarians) as well as other users of the Palace (journalists, civil servants, contractors, external experts and the wider public) in shaping the project.
We have looked particularly closely at the points of intersection in the governance structure: between the Parliamentary authorities and the Sponsor Body, the Sponsor Body and the Delivery Authority, the Government and all three other players. We have made several recommendations designed to clarify the roles of the various bodies, strengthen accountability and to ensure that all are fully committed to what is inevitably a long-term project. We have recommended mechanisms for keeping Parliamentarians informed and engaged in the process, without encouraging unhelpful interference in the bodies tasked with delivering the project. We have suggested a specific role for the Treasury to ensure government involvement.
It was unavoidable that we should consider the measures necessary to enable both Houses to decant to alternative accommodation. Though it was not our role to examine options, we have pointed out several areas of potential difficulty. Without proper arrangements for decant, the work on the Palace will be delayed and rendered more difficult.
Above all, we urge that swift progress is made with the Bill so that the shadow Sponsor Body can start its work with all the powers and authority it needs. This will be a difficult project—high profile, on an old building that has been patched up for years, and which will involve the removal of both Houses to temporary accommodation that will enable them to continue to do the full range of work of a legislature. It is already clear that decant presents several serious practical problems—adapting the temporary accommodation to Parliament’s needs, providing a secure environment and meeting the requirements of the planning process. Any delay in decant will add significantly to the timescale and cost of the project. The sooner the Sponsor Body can assume full responsibility for tackling these problems, the better.
Published: 21 March 2019