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Parliament’s predicament

Matt Thompson

The seat of UK government is in dire need of a refurbishment that will cost billions the country can ill afford. Dare we consider cheaper options?

1850 section through the Palace of Westminster designed by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin.
1850 section through the Palace of Westminster designed by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin. Credit: RIBA Collections

The Palace of Westminster, that grade I listed neo-Gothic slab on the Thames filled with 650 MPs and 780 peers of the realm, is in a bad way. Its extensive basements have accreted layers of ancient M&E services so tangled and arcane that no human can comprehend them. Asbestos in the risers threatens to infect ventilation systems. Rainwater from gutters and downpipes encased inaccessibly in Victorian stonework is penetrating inwards. The drainage was designed for far fewer people in a different era. In short, it is one unlucky moment away from conflagration or serious failure, which would put the continued running of government in peril.

During the last half century at least, Parliament’s facilities management policy has been to patch and mend, favouring the fabric’s outward appearance to satisfy the millions of tourists it attracts. As M&E service lives have come and gone, systemic risks have ramped up. It didn’t really take the combined intelligence of AECOM, HOK and Deloitte in their Independent Options Appraisal (IOA) to work out that tinkering around the edges was, as the consequent Joint Committee 2016 report puts it, ‘like trying to fill a bathtub with a thimble while the water is draining out of the plughole.

Then there are the 1,100 rooms across 1 million square feet that need to be made fit for contemporary digital office workers in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Regardless of how much it would cost or how it would be managed, the work must be done, and so in 2015 Parliament issued a tender to procure the restoration and renewal design work.

The practices shortlisted for the job – Allies and Morrison, BDP, Foster & Partners and HOK – are doubtless attracted by the prestige as well as the technical challenge. They are probably content to carry on twiddling their thumbs until Parliament gets round to greenlighting the work – something that for the moment has taken a back seat to Brexit and snap election issues. No doubt the recent tragic terrorist attack  at Westminster has precipitated a review of security needs too.

The Joint Committee’s recommended option is priced at £3.9 billion – a colossal amount, but a snip compared to costlier, lengthier, riskier alternatives. The plan is to fully decant, do the work over six years, and repopulate. This implies finding a ‘meanwhile’ home for the Commons and Lords, a job that is not yet but might be part of a separate £500m package of work won by BDP. The Lords are likely to rent space in the nearby QEII Conference Centre while the Commons looks set to occupy Richmond House on Whitehall, soon to be vacated by the Department of Health. This is in any case already being prepared as decant space for parliamentary workers from the two Norman Shaw buildings that are part of the same refurbishment design lot. However, no decisions have been made, and that leaves the door open for fervid speculation.

There’s something about parliament buildings that fascinates. On the one hand, they are the archetypal public project. They should offer more value for less money than a DIY store double-discount monster sale. On the other hand, they are the constitutional heart of national identity, a prominent symbol of a collective culture, values and ambition, and therefore deserving of the most lavish procurement.

The previous UK parliament building burned down in 1834 at a time of huge social and political turbulence. Witnessing it, Charles Barry purportedly remarked, ‘What a chance for an architect’ – one he was to seize. We may not be grappling with Chartism or the Poor Law, but there are once again social and political tectonic shifts afoot, and the prospect of reshaping the Palace of Westminster to heal society is, for architects, irresistible.

While the shortlisted practices are keeping schtum about their plans, others are letting their imaginations run free. Gensler has paraded a mobile floating structure to house the debating chambers, burnishing the concept with detailed visualisations. Philippe Paré, Gensler’s design principal, wants to incorporate workplace design ideas ‘proven to improve productivity, well-being and collaboration’. 

Hawkins\Brown’s Parliament Square redesign proposal for Transport for London. Russell Brown proposes retaining the Palace of Westminster as a tourist attraction but siting parliament elsewhere. ‘Democracy is about access,’ he says.
Hawkins\Brown’s Parliament Square redesign proposal for Transport for London. Russell Brown proposes retaining the Palace of Westminster as a tourist attraction but siting parliament elsewhere. ‘Democracy is about access,’ he says. Credit: Hawkins\Brown with Vogt Landscape Architects. CGI by CMJ.

Russell Brown, founding partner of Hawkins\Brown, proposes separating emotional form from practical function. He thinks the palace itself should be ‘propped up’ as a tourist attraction, with the business of Parliament relocated to new buildings spread around the country, mischievously suggesting South Wales, Middlesbrough or Ashton-under-Lyne. ‘That decentralisation is very sensible,’ he says. ‘Democracy is about access, good business, transparency and efficiency. Westminster’s architecture is far too fixed and rigid. It doesn’t have the capacity, is difficult to defend, and is outmoded IT-wise.’ For him, the architecture of the debating chambers dictates our confrontational style of politics. Citing the Reichstag and the GLA building, he thinks the more rational choice is a circular debating chamber.

Peter Carey, a respected conservation architect, agrees that there is a definite tension between the building and its function. ‘The qualities of grade I listed buildings such as this are unrelated to digital tech and space optimisation. Modern use and servicing requirements are often in direct conflict with them,’ he says. But he does not agree that its function should be rehoused. ‘The two houses within the one major complex linked by corridors is a deterministic expression of a method of operation that has developed over the centuries of staging all the most significant debates and decisions in our history. That necessarily has a powerful impact on the psyche, giving it immeasurable national value.’ Even as a ‘rose-tinted Victorianisation’ of the Gothic style, he says, the current incarnation of the Palace is a superlative heritage asset.

Views from outside the world of architecture generally agree that you don’t mess with nearly a millennium of tradition, though not everyone is so respectful. Alex Salmond MP accuses the IOA of lacking credibility because it does not even consider ‘a new-build Parliament’. Martyn Evans, formerly the creative director for developer U+I, thinks the time is ripe for ‘a radical new symbol of national unity’ and wants it embodied in a new building.

Matthew Flinders, director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, disdains what he calls Hogwarts-on-Thames, which he describes as a ‘dark and dank’ physical manifestation of ‘our deeply derided mode of politics’. He thinks it time to breathe new life into British politics by ‘designing for democracy’ – without saying quite what this means.

Guardian features writer Stephen Moss, tongue not altogether in cheek, suggested a peripatetic Parliament chugging about the country on a train, conducting business on virtual networks, and disembarking into temporary marquees for plenary sessions.

More seriously, the Economist’s inestimable Bagehot column proposed moving not just Parliament but the whole capital to Manchester, adding new meaning to the ‘northern powerhouse’ concept. Among this idea’s many other advantages, it argues persuasively, are that this would rebalance a Britain ‘wracked by division’ and ‘drive the urban integration needed to raise national productivity’. The sale of the Westminster ministerial estate would fund the whole shebang, while the Palace could become a museum or hotel.

UK precedents for the design of parliament buildings are sweet and sour. Barry and Pugin’s masterpiece, one of the most recognisable buildings in the world, overran by 26 years and cost two and a half times its budget. The Welsh National Assembly is a glorious metaphor for confident, forward-looking democracy, but its budget was significantly higher than forecast. The Scottish Parliament building may have won the Stirling Prize but its eye-watering budget overrun is these days a byword for catastrophic optimism bias.

After the event, this underlying narrative of abject delay and blown budgets is best swept under the carpet. Before the event, though, it might pay to remember it. With a six-year programme and a starting price of £3.9bn, no wonder Parliament is hesitating. What’s more, tender price inflation means it is growing at between £60m and £85m a year, according to the IOA.

If precedent is anything to go by, the £3.9bn is probably already more like £4bn and is likely to grow inexorably. The final bill could easily soar to £10bn or more, hardly the price the electorate associates with VFM. And so the project continues to stagnate while politicians fiddle.

There is one logical solution that would resolve the deadlock but that no one dares voice: demolish and start again. This would save the country billions. But politicians won’t be tempted. No one could be that barbarous. Could they?


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