Success will be measured by how well the costs of the refurbishment are managed says Thomas Lane
The problems with the Palace of Westminster have unfortunate parallels with the current state of government. The building is in a parlous state – yesterday Historic England warned it would put it onto the buildings at risk register if action was delayed. The Palace suffers from multiple problems including roof and sewage leaks; none of the 4,000 windows provide proper weather resistance; the lifts are clapped out; and worryingly aged steam heating pipes are at risk of blowouts, which could spark a devastating fire. There have been 60 incidents over the past ten years that could have led to a fire.
Like the building, the government is creaking under multiple pressures, weak and irreconcilably divided over how to handle Brexit; the economy drifts while MPs squabble over the single market and customs union. Like the hard Brexiteers who hark back to a golden age where Britannia ruled the waves, the Labour party looks longingly back to a bygone era of nationalism and all-powerful unions. Meanwhile the Grenfell Tower continues to cast a shadow over proceedings. The last thing the country needs is for the Palace of Westminster to go up in flames and become the ultimate symbol of political failure.
So it’s just as well that MPs voted on Wednesday to leave their home while it is refurbished. The Lords are expected to back the Commons vote, which means that MPs will move to Richmond House in Whitehall and the Lords to the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in 2025 when work starts. The work has been estimated to cost at least £3.5bn if MPs and the Lords move out – but if work took place around government, estimated costs jump to £5.7bn and the timescale to 32 years. There have been calls for Parliament to move to a new permanent location but the problems of the Palace of Westminster aren’t going to go away – demolition is unthinkable which means some form of refurbishment is inevitable.
The public, weary of years of austerity, isn’t going to take kindly to Scottish Parliament levels of cost escalation being lavished on tarting up the government’s home
Assuming the Lords back the Commons, the key challenge now is to manage the costs of the work. Refurbishments, particularly ones involving buildings riddled with asbestos, have a nasty habit of spiralling out of control. The public, weary of years of austerity, isn’t going to take kindly to Scottish Parliament levels of cost escalation being lavished on tarting up the government’s home. The idea of an Olympics-style delivery authority has its merits, providing this develops a robust plan of what needs to done and how these works are procured and executed. The hope is that MPs manage this rather better than some other affairs of state. If past performance is any guide, the signs aren’t good.