Alexandra Meakin is a doctoral student at the University of Sheffield, where her research is on the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. She is a Research Associate on the Designing for Democracy project, led by the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, an ESRC Knowledge Exchange Hub.
As the House of Commons returns this week from the summer recess, MPs will be adjusting to a temporary silence from the chimes of Big Ben. The repairs to the Elizabeth Tower, which contains the Great Bell, have led some politicians and parts of the media to protest that “the very heartbeat of our democracy is falling silent”. The House of Commons Commission is due to meet this month to reconsider the programme of work to address urgent problems with the clock mechanism and the structure of the tower. But while attention has been focused on Big Ben, an anniversary this week serves as a pressing reminder about the worrying state of the rest of the Palace of Westminster.
On 8 September it will be a year since a Joint Select Committee reported back to Parliament about the severe state of disrepair of the Palace. Much of the essential infrastructure serving the building passed its expected lifespan several decades ago, causing a significant risk of a catastrophic fire or failure of essential services. The Committee recommended a major rebuilding project, the Restoration and Renewal programme, which would entail a full decant of the two chambers of Parliament into temporary accommodation. The cost and inconvenience would be significant, but the Committee’s conclusion was clear: the Palace faced “an impending crisis which we cannot responsibly ignore”.
Twelve months on, this stark warning has, in fact, been ignored. The first steps towards proceeding with the Restoration and Renewal programme should have been taken last autumn, when the Commons and Lords were due to debate the Committee’s report, and vote on whether to approve ‘in principle’ the formation of an arm’s length body to undertake further feasibility work on the plans. The Committee urged this debate to be held quickly, stressing that it was “vital that the Restoration and Renewal Programme should not be delayed at this critical juncture”. But for a full year, the government has declined to schedule the time for a debate on the future of the Palace.
The condition of the building has only deteriorated further during this time. Each day, MPs, peers, staff and visitors to Parliament deal with crumbling stonework, flooding, mice, and appalling access for people with disabilities. Twenty four hour fire patrols are necessary, due to the risks from the antiquated wiring and power systems: there have been 60 incidents that could have resulted in a major fire in the Palace since 2008. The mid-Victorian neo-Gothic masterpiece created by Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin is, in the words of the Joint Committee, in danger of becoming “uninhabitable”.
The Palace of Westminster is hugely important for architectural reasons. The iconic building is Grade One listed, and forms part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The historian David Cannadine described it as has described it as “one of the most famous and instantly recognisable buildings in the world”. Failing to address decades of neglect risks a key part of the country’s heritage. The significance of the Palace goes far beyond the fabric of the building, however. One of the objectives of the Restoration and Renewal programme (PDF) is to “accommodate the needs of a 21st century Parliament”, but the failure to debate the future of the building has prevented a discussion over what a ’21st century Parliament’ looks like, or how to rebuild the Palace of Westminster to strengthen the relationship between the public and their Parliament.
Politics has been unusually turbulent in the UK, and across the world, over the last two years. The forthcoming departure from the EU is unquestionably the main concern in Parliament: the main business in the Commons this week will be the second reading of the EU Withdrawal Bill. As MPs consider Brexit and Big Ben, however, they should revisit the warning of their colleagues who sat on the Joint Committee: “the consequences of continuing to neglect the fundamental problems with the building are unthinkable”.