Fixing Westminster

Caroline Shenton

In 1850 the government announced yet another delay to the construction of the new Houses of Parliament. ‘I am in a towering rage,’ Charles Barry, the architect of the new building, wrote to Augustus Pugin, who was responsible for the interior design,

and in the right humour for throwing up my appointment, which I expect I shall be driven to do before long. All the arrangements, including the form, size, proportions, taste and everything else concerning it are in abeyance, and awaiting the fiat of a Committee of the House of Commons, of all tribunals the most unfit to decide … who would be an architect engaged on public works?

‘I am properly disgusted by the findings of these men,’ Pugin replied. ‘I am astonished how you can work with them. No inducement in the world could make me transact business with persons who can act in this manner.’

I was reminded of these letters last month, when it was announced by Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons, that a decision on the restoration of the Palace of Westminster has again been postponed. Barry’s creation, which replaced the medieval rabbit warren of buildings destroyed in the fire of 1834, is a masterpiece of Victorian architecture, and a spectacular feat of civil engineering. It was built – literally and perhaps metaphorically – on eight acres of quicksand. Its river frontage, a quarter of a mile long, was set deep into the treacherous currents of the Thames. Its towers were so huge that they required unprecedented feats of engineering in order to be raised on the cramped site. And the interior design – gothic stained glass, metalwork, encaustic tiling and wall coverings – was on an unprecedented scale. Barry faced constant interference from politicians and fended off the schemes of crackpot inventors and busybodies, eventually delivering the building in 1860, 24 years after he was commissioned, at three times his original budget and years behind schedule.

Today, his building is in dire condition. His clock tower is being repaired, despite the outcry over the silencing of Big Ben, but the rest is in trouble. A number of the services – including the sewers – have never been renewed. The 98 ventilation shafts (remnants of an unexecuted air-conditioning system installed by one of the pseudo-scientists imposed on Barry) are clotted with decades of decaying wiring and corroded pipework. Leaks and floods are common; mice, rats and moths are everywhere. Asbestos riddles the building, complicating investigations into structural problems and slowing down repairs, and seven miles of temperamental steam systems for heating in the basement could blow at any time. The oldest lift dates from 1893. The stonework is crumbling and can be pulled away by hand, while the cast iron roof is corroded and the guttering faulty. Parts of the building do not meet modern fire regulation standards. A 2012 report on The Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster commissioned by both Houses of Parliament warned that unless significant work is carried out swiftly, major, irreversible damage may be done to the Palace. Since then, things have deteriorated: 50 per cent of the Palace’s mechanical and electrical services are at high risk of failure by 2020. The report echoed the call made in 1828 by John Soane for ‘revision and speedy amendment’ to the old Palace of Westminster. He asked where a fire would be arrested. Six years later he was answered, as the great conflagration raged unchecked.

Following the 2012 report, an independent consortium of civil engineers, architects, heritage consultants, project managers and quantity surveyors spent three years working out how to carry out the necessary work. Then the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster considered their solution for a further year and unanimously agreed that the best way of doing the job was the £3.5 billion six-year ‘full decant’ option, in which parliamentarians would move out for the duration. That was more than a year ago.

In January, a Commons debate was called by the Labour MP Chris Bryant, former shadow leader of the Commons, who led the joint committee. Some backbench MPs suggested different options for the repairs (options already considered and dismissed) that would cost more and take longer, because they would involve less disruption to MPs. They favoured either a ‘partial decant’ (MPs would move into the Lords while the Commons is repaired and then back while the Lords is repaired: this would take 11 years and cost £4.4 billion) or carrying out repairs during parliamentary recesses (this would take 32 years, cost £5.7 billion and work being done in this piecemeal fashion is what got the Palace into such a state in the first place). Then the Treasury and Public Accounts Select Committees conducted their own investigations into the costs, only to conclude that all was in order. The general election pushed the decision back to this autumn, and now Leadsom has announced another ‘investigation’, which will take another 18 months to put forward three possibilities: the full decant, the partial decant and a new ‘foothold’ option, in which the building could be used for certain symbolic events, like the state opening of Parliament. MPs will then vote on their preferred option.

Sentimentalism and a misplaced sense of tradition, alongside a denial of the scale and complexity of the necessary work, has blinded some politicians to the urgency of the situation; others think it looks bad to be spending so much on the Houses of Parliament. The lessons of the 19th century suggest that trying to stay put while the work is done would cause huge delays and a massive overspend, as well as serious difficulty for the MPs trying to do their jobs. An extra £100 million in costs has already been incurred as a result of the latest delay. After the fire of 1834, the government swiftly decided that the Lords and the Commons should meet in the reroofed and repainted shell of the old Palace of Westminster, although there were a number of suitable alternatives nearby, including Buckingham Palace, which William IV was keen to offload. Within weeks of moving into their temporary home, MPs were complaining. There were problems with capacity, lighting, heating and acoustics. They were too hot in summer and too cold in winter. They suffered from endless coughs as a result of the dust and dirt in the air. The work dragged on and costs increased as they tried to alter the plans for the new building.

‘I am quite sure,’ the First Commissioner of Works told a Commons committee in 1844,

that any practical course, which in a great national building of this kind removed the responsibility from the shoulders of the architect, who ought to bear it, and is the most competent judge of all the details of the building, to [those] who are not practical architects, who may be men of no taste whatever, and, as a fluctuating body, are quite unfit to superintend, in all its practical details, the erection of a building which must extend over a great many years, would be extremely inconvenient and prejudicial.

He added that while MPs were ‘at perfect liberty to exercise any criticism, however unjust’, of an architect they employed ‘for the construction of their own private residence’, ‘in the case of my performance of my public duties, as superintending the execution of a great national work, I should have considered myself greatly departing from my duties had I interfered in any such way.’

He would have found the current situation horribly familiar.