“Could burn every day”
British Parliament is a restructuring case
Great on the outside, ugh on the inside: Westminster Palace is in bad shape. A core renovation has therefore been discussed for years. It’s about billions – and decades.
The British Parliament towers imposingly on the Thames. The Victorian palace is an eye-catcher for tourists, a faithful companion for Londoners and a symbol of the United Kingdom for all. But inside the national icon, the glory is quickly over.
The mustiness of 150 years blows through the venerable rooms. The parliament itself reports of “crumbling stones, cracks in the ceilings and warped windows”, there is water damage. For decades, only the bare essentials have been patched, mice are running through the aisles. Westminster Palace is in need of redevelopment. But the debate about the renovation is stalled.
Fire already avoided in 2017
MEPs are sounding the alarm. The famous building in the heart of the capital is threatened with a fate like that of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, which was badly damaged in a major fire around three years ago, ex-Minister Andrea Leadsom told the BBC over the weekend. “It could burn down today or tomorrow or any day,” warned the conservative politician. In 2017, a fire was only avoided thanks to the fire watch, which is on duty around the clock in Parliament. “We have to make a decision and move forward.”
So far, however, the MPs have not been able to reach an agreement. Because it’s about a lot of money – and a lot of time. In February, a report by the responsible program commission estimated the costs at between 7 and 13 billion pounds (8.3 to 15.4 billion euros). The construction period: 19 to 28 years. In addition to improved fire protection, asbestos removal, new cables and conservation work are necessary. The building, built between 1837 and 1860, is also threatened by flooding.
But all the numbers and data only apply if MPs leave the building for 12 to 20 years. If there is only a partial clearance, the estimates increase significantly. And if work has to be done around MPs and staff, Westminster Palace becomes an expensive permanent construction site: between 46 and 76 years would then be needed at a cost of £11-22 billion.
Alternative location is up for debate
The delay is also due to disagreements between members of the two chambers, each based in the Houses of Parliament. First, an alternative location has to be found, but even that is difficult. So the Lords, as members of the House of Lords are called, want to stay close to the House of Commons. The Queen Elizabeth II Center conference building not far from Parliament, which was under discussion as an alternative location, was rejected by the government.
Building Secretary Michael Gove, as the responsible cabinet member, favors a move to a very different area. “I realize that a change in the House of Lords, even for a temporary period, would be widely welcomed,” the BBC quoted Gove as saying in a letter to Lords John McFall. “I know that cities and towns across the UK would be happy to extend their hospitality to the peers.” A year-long move to a city outside of London would also symbolically support Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “Levelling Up” program, which Gove is responsible for.
“Pretty mad at the House of Lords”
But the minister meets with resistance. Member of the House of Lords Helene Hayman even senses a conspiracy. The House of Lords has been doing its job temporarily blocking highly controversial Conservative government proposals, Hayman, a former Labor MP in the House of Commons, told the BBC.
‘They’re pretty mad at the House of Lords. Throwing us out is a punishment.” Experts fear that the political haggling will further delay the billion-euro project. Political scientist Matthew Flinders said all sides would blame each other for shying away from unpopular decisions.