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Save Richmond House

Hugh Pearman

Parliament’s move doesn’t have to destroy this fine listed building

It was quite something, being in Committee Room 12, a Puginian cube overlooking the Thames, in the Palace of Westminster. We were there, along with two great conservation organisations – SAVE Britain’s Heritage and the 20th Century Society – to discuss another parliamentary building: Richmond House in Whitehall by the late Sir William Whitfield. It is grade II* listed. Parliament intends to demolish all but a fragment of it. We are very strongly against this idea and architectural historians, conservation-minded architects, even a parliamentary security expert, lined up to say why. It was an instructive and entertaining masterclass in debunking muddled thinking, done by Marcus Binney of SAVE through historians Andrew Saint and Alan Powers, Catherine Croft of the 20th Century Society and other experts. Whitfield’s surviving practice partner Andrew Lockwood contributed from the floor.

Why is this demolition even being considered? Because the Palace is to be emptied in the mid 2020s to speed its restoration, requiring temporary chambers for the Commons and Lords – with associated ancillary accommodation – to be built. Yes, it would be great if Parliament could move in the interim to Birmingham, Leeds or even the Excel exhibition centre in London’s Royal Docks. But you’d have to move the whole of Whitehall too to do this and that would be monumentally more expensive even than what’s proposed now.

Alternatives have been dismissed on security grounds – a convenient get-out given that nowhere can ever be totally secure

What to do? The Lords is scheduled to move to Powell and Moya’s Queen Elizabeth II Centre at Broad Sanctuary across from the Abbey. Of similar mid-80s date to Richmond House, this should also be listed in my view (a Certificate of Immunity against listing expired in 2016), given the amount of carving-out of space it will need. But the Commons is the real problem. Architects including Lord Foster and Sir Michael Hopkins have suggested putting the temporary chamber respectively in Horseguards Parade or in the great atrium of Hopkins’ Portcullis House. These have been dismissed, it seems, on security grounds – a convenient get-out given that nowhere can ever be totally secure (apparently the 19th century-looking windows of our committee room are attack-resistant, though it was hard to see how).

But Richmond House, under plans drawn up by BDP and AHMM, would be demolished entirely other than its famous Tudor-inspired Whitehall facade, and that would be compromised by a higher new structure behind, a new security-check building in front, and barriers everywhere. Richmond House is much more than its main facade however. The way it defers to the Norman Shaw buildings behind is adroit, its cascade of beautifully-made, well-daylit office floors a delight. It has worn very well and is well used.

SAVE has shown how it could be refurbished as an exemplary energy-conscious government building, and has found alternative secure sites for the two Parliamentary chambers in courtyards of the Commonwealth Office and the Treasury. We don’t need to lose Richmond House. Let’s not.