A new parliament building would be more suited to a modern, forward looking Britain. It would also be cheaper and showcase Britains creative skills to the world says Martyn Evans
The saga of the Palace of Westminster refurbishment drags on. Following the publication of a Parliamentary report last September (about an earlier 2014 Deloitte report) recommending a complete decant and a 6-year, £3.9bn programme of repairs, last week the Treasury Select Committee published yet another report demanding a re-think on costs. The inevitability of a process that will end up costing us a forest in paper is depressing when we have in front of us the greatest and most timely opportunity to build a radical new symbol of national unity and an expression of our values as a modern global nation.
Is this not exactly the time when we should be questioning the nature of the very buildings at the heart of our democracy?
From the Norman invasion through Roman and Greek Civilisation to Hitler and Mussolini, the power of architecture to symbolise government and national identity is undisputed. Our own parliament building is one of the most famous in the world. But what does it say about us at a time when we are questioning our very national identity as we leave Europe and tumble into a fractious, related debate about our own Union of nations and its future connectivity? Is this not exactly the time when we should be questioning the nature of the very buildings at the heart of our democracy, whether they are fit for a 21st Century purpose and beyond and whether they say the right thing to the rest of the world about our country and its place in it?
A report published a fortnight ago by GLA Economics, in partnership with the London Festival of Architecture, underlined London’s status as the world’s leading architecture city and showed the importance of our architects by revealing that they bring in a net contribution of £400m to the UK economy every year. British architects are hired by governments all around the world to create public buildings that change the conversation about the cities in which they are built - a series of permanent billboards promoting Britain’s creativity in the world’s most important cities. We need one here.
We have a great history of public building in our country but it’s a legacy that has been eviscerated in recent decades. Look at some of our most beloved public buildings, built during and after the Industrial Revolution as great symbols of global power and democracy – the City Halls and great public art galleries of Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Cardiff and, indeed, the 1834 refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster. Of course, politics and finances were different then – our Empire provided materials, labour was cheap and there was no welfare state to dent the national budget. As many of the smaller examples of those great public buildings deteriorated through the 20th Century we replaced them with a series of much lower quality buildings designed by more democratic processes, commissioned by public servants influenced by European left-leaning social thinking. Now, it seems, cost drives everything and if public buildings are commissioned at all they are accompanied by howls of protest about how much better the money could be spent on welfare and the NHS.
Of course the tragic event this week in Westminster adds to the debate about how an old building like the Houses of Parliament can cope with modern terrorist threats
Which is why the debate about the cost of refurbishing the Palace of Westminster is so bizarre. £3.9bn to move everyone out for six years or £6bn to leave them all in there, finishing in 2050? The first option includes £85m to build a new, temporary debating chamber in the former Department of Health HQ in Richmond House on Whitehall and an additional £500m to re-develop the office buildings to the north of Hopkins’ Portcullis House. Let’s just remind ourselves that, at the wildest estimate, The Shard cost £1.5bn including the land to build it on. The Pinnacle is reportedly costing £700m and Google’s new Kings Cross HQ, £600m. Think of the jobs, never mind the regeneration potential of finding a new site, hiring the finest British architect and building the most beautiful, modern parliament building in the world.
Of course the tragic event this week in Westminster adds to the debate about how an old building like the Houses of Parliament can cope with modern terrorist threats. The new American Embassy in Nine Elms, designed to be a fortress, is a response which has also to be balanced with issues about access to democracy.
The Palace of Westminster is a fine, beautiful building. And it needs a new life. But let’s find a use for it that is suited to its historic architecture and build a new home for our nation’s democracy that shows us to be the creative, global country we are with the greatest architects in the world.
Martyn Evans is the development director for the Dartington Hall Trust and was formerly the creative director at U+I