Its ornate facade and gilded gates may hide it, but the Palace of Westminster is falling apart. Re-built on the cheap by our Victorian forebears more than 170 years ago, it’s had little work since.
The building is simply not fit for the 21st century: infamously one unfortunate MP recently had urine dripping into his office from the leaky sewage system. The result is that politicians have been considering what to do about it. At some point before Easter, a committee of MPs is expected to recommend refurbishing the ‘Mother of Parliaments’. MPs and peers will need to move to alternative digs in London in the interim.
According to reports, it’ll be expensive – at least £3 billion. It will take a long time – at least six years. As a result and in the spirit of political opportunism, one MP has already called the makeover plans ’unthinkable’ in an age of austerity. No doubt someone will start an e-petition calling it an enormous waste of money.
Of course, we could easily build a new parliament. It could be state-of-the-art, designed by a world-renowned architect and it would probably be a lot cheaper than the refurbishment. Google’s new HQ near King’s Cross for example has been estimated at £1 billion (I’m guessing pre-tax). And that’s got an indoor football pitch and rooftop pool. One suspects the honourable gentlemen and ladies of the Commons might struggle to get public support for those sorts of luxuries.
But is focusing solely on the cost ignoring the broader significance of Barry’s masterpiece? The Palace is a prime example of a building that goes beyond simple bricks and mortar. It’s a symbol of Britain’s greatest export: parliamentary democracy. It’s one of the most recognisable buildings in the world: it appears on postcards, breakfast condiments and in the Facebook albums of countless millions of tourists. If any building is worth refreshing, surely it’s this one?
And what if we did turf the politicians out? What becomes of the Palace then? Refurbishment work notwithstanding, its Grade 1 listing would check any developer aspirations. Luxury flats maybe and the preserve of the super rich? Not very democratic and I don’t see it as a centre for social housing. A hotel perhaps, a casino or one of those indoor soft play centres? Would the public be happy for it to be used as any of these and who would decide what and how?
And let’s not forget that part of what makes the Palace so iconic is that it’s still a working building, performing the same legislative function that’s taken place on the site for centuries. This is a place where the likes of Gladstone, Atlee and Thatcher shaped so much of what makes the United Kingdom the nation it is. The Palace is so much more than a building – it’s stitched into the fabric of Britain.
So, when Chris Grayling and his colleagues deliver their report in the next few weeks, let’s hope that they (and I’m sure they will) remember that sometimes there’s more to this building than the budget.
Kai Pritchard, Account Manager