Last September, the Joint Committee on the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster issued its report. It drew attention to the fact that, although the Palace of Westminster is structurally sound, the building’s mechanical and electrical services – the basic services enabling the place to operate – are no longer amenable to a ‘patch and mend’ approach and, without an intensive programme, the Palace will become uninhabitable. The infrastructure is basically a mess – it is not clear where all the wiring goes, the whole place is a major fire risk, and there is the danger of catastrophic failure. Anyone who walks round the Palace will see the existing ‘patch and mend’ work going on, which is in itself extensive, but it is not sufficient.
The Joint Committee recommended that in principle the option to be adopted is for both Houses to move out (the full decant option) for about 6 years. Other options would be (a) work taking place on a rolling programme while both Houses remain in place, which would likely take about 32 years, but would still involve both chambers moving out for between two and four years, and (b) each House basically taking it in turn to move out while work is completed, a process likely to take eleven years.
Some parliamentarians are keen on staying put, which I find rather bizarre as well as leaving members open to the accusation of being self-serving. The full decant option is the cheapest of those on offer (though knocking the Palace down and building a new Parliament building would actually be cheaper) as well as being the most sensible. The reasons given by the Joint Committee are to my mind irrefutable:
‘The analysis in the Independent Options Appraisal, and all the independent, expert evidence we have received, have pointed us to one clear conclusion: that a full decant of the Palace of Westminster is the best delivery option in principle. It allows the work to be completed in the shortest possible timeframe, it minimises the risk of disruption to the day-to-day operation of Parliament, it is likely to involve the lowest capital cost, it minimises the risk to safety of construction operatives and occupants, it minimises the risk to the Programme itself, and it provides the greatest scope for meeting the needs of a 21st Century Parliament building.’
We might recognise the difference between the two chambers. The wiring in the Palace does not. The infrastructure is the Palace infrastructure. There is no clear argument for doing it bit by bit. We do know that the place is riddled with asbestos. We cannot be certain what else may be found. The cost of the least expensive option runs to over £3 billion. I am not sure I would be able to persuade the taxpayer of the merits of spending anything from another half-a-billion to £2 billion to avoid MPs and peers having to leave the Palace while work takes place.
Both Houses have yet to take a decision. We were supposed to be taking one by spring of last year. I gather there will shortly be votes. It will take several years to prepare for a decant. The sooner we resolve the matter, the better.