Securing The Houses of Parliament for Future Generations

The Palace of Westminster is the meeting place of the two Houses of Parliament in the city of London and is one of the most iconic structures in the United Kingdom.

Anyone who has seen this famous building in the last year will have noticed that it has been covered in scaffolding. This is because works on the Elizabeth Clock Tower and other parts of the exterior are being carried out on the building which was built between 1840 – 1876.

This however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Whilst exterior works are underway a £3.5bn interior project has been planned to take place in 2025.

What is the Project?

The project will take on a complex portfolio of work that addresses 160 years of backlog of repair, whilst preparing for the biggest decant of Westminster Palace since World War II. The building will also look to increase it’s accessibility to all.

The interior of the Palace of Westminster will be renovated to upgrade the buildings internal systems such as the wiring and piping. This will see both the House of Commons and House of Lords be relocated for 6 years from 2025, something that both Houses agreed upon by vote earlier this year.

The House of Lords will be relocated to the Queen Elizabeth 2nd Convention Centre whilst the House of Commons will move to Richmond Hall. The cost of both moves falls under the £3.5bn budget. A Draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill was released on Oct 18th, 2018.

Why is the Work Being Done?

The systems that currently keep the building running (wiring, piping, plumbing etc) are 130 years old. Over this 130 year period the systems have not been replaced and a “patch and mend” approach has been taken. The work that is due to take place should’ve taken place in the 1970’s.

There are a number of safety concerns over the current systems with the Palace facing a number of safety issues such as:

  • Seven fires in the first 11 months of 2017 (a 24-hour fire patrol is currently needed).
  • Two hundred toilets failed in January 2018 alone.
  • Asbestos has been found throughout the building.

A committee of MP’s and Peers stated in 2016 that “there is a substantial and growing risk of a single, catastrophic event” (contingencies are in place for this with the Houses being moved and secured in the QE2 convention centre within 5 days) and with 8000 workers and a million visitors entering the building every year it was felt that a decision needed to be made one way or the other.

Doing the work sooner rather than later will prevent such an event and even further costs.

Challenges to the Project

The biggest challenge to this project is keeping it within the agreed budget. The proposed £3.5bn budget will be coming from the taxpayers so Parliament needs to give them the confidence that the refurbishments can be completed on time within budget. Failure to do so will not be received well by the public or the MPs.

Steps have been put into place already to make sure that all goes to plan. In the draft bill (as mentioned above) it states that the delivery plan will take the same two-tier approach as the highly successful London 2012 Olympics project, whilst regular 6-month assessments will take place to track the progress and resolve any issues.

The time this takes to complete could however depend on the efficiency of the Houses to vote on certain matters. The Draft bill is exactly that, a draft, and still needs to be signed off on with budgets and design to be agreed. Deloitte has predicted that it would cost from £3.5 – £3.9bn.

The Houses track record has not been great so far when it comes to voting on design/structural aspects of the Palace. The idea of a full decant emerged in 2012, in 2016 that quote about “a catastrophic event”, 2 years after that, finally there was a vote in parliament. Chris Byrant had been pushing for a vote to get work done quickly and stated concern over how long it was taking “it took 12 years alone to decide on new lights in Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the building.”

Whilst much of the debate and discussion for this project has been between the traditionalists of Parliament and those opting for change. Decisions have been made and voted for and a date to vacate and start work have been set (for now).

With a tried and tested approach being adopted to oversee this project and a bill ready to be decided on, all we can do is wait and see if this project can be delivered successfully and in doing so, securing the future of the Houses of Parliament.

This article was written after Project Challenge in October where David Hemming, Deputy Managing Director, Strategic Estates, UK Parliament gave an opening keynote presentation. To find out more about the history of the estate, take a look at the website.

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