The Guardian view on the Palace of Westminster: renovate it – and our democracy | Editorial

The dangerous dilapidation of the Houses of Parliament can no longer be ignored. They must be restored and modernised before catastrophe strikes

The physical state of the Palace of Westminster – its confusing warrens of corridors and staircases, its arcane rituals and atmosphere, its leaking roofs, its dreadful plumbing – has become bound up with a general dissatisfaction with the state of British politics. The metaphors pile up without effort: there is an urge, understandable at times, to write off the building as well as the parliament that sits within it, condemning both as worthless and outmoded.

This is unfair, not only to the public-service ethics of the vast majority of parliamentarians, but to the building itself. The palace is a Unesco world heritage site, an architectural masterpiece and a historical locus of almost inestimable value. Though most of the Gothic structure was designed by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin in the 19th century, the palace also contains the 11th-century Westminster Hall and the 13th-century Saint Stephen’s chapel, sole survivals of a catastrophic fire in 1834 that tore through the rest of the buildings.

What is also true is that the palace is completely unsafe – and unsuitable in its current form for the pursuance of modern democracy. It has been appallingly neglected. Its outmoded steam-powered heating system is especially dangerous: if the ancient pipes were to explode, the high-pressure steam could kill, and send asbestos through the ventilation system. Between 2008 and 2012, 40 fires broke out in the building. Swift-spreading conflagrations are prevented only through the vigilance of a 24-hour patrol; there is no fire compartmentalisation. Wiring has been overlaid since the second world war in a confounding palimpsest.

After years of wretched procrastination, MPs finally voted early last year for a full renovation, involving their vacating the buildings for several years from 2025. The cost was recently estimated at £3.5bn – it will be more than that by the time work starts. Parliamentarians have been reluctant to commit public funds to the building, fearing outrage. But this is not a question of spending money on themselves. It is to make an environment fit for the democratic work of future generations. It is a duty that it would be irresponsible to shirk. At present, out of 31 lifts, only one, scandalously, is fully wheelchair-compliant. The Commons chamber itself can accommodate only one wheelchair and cannot even seat all its MPs at once.

This renovation ought to be seen as the opportunity to renovate British democracy itself. A positive start might be for parliament to sit in different parts of the UK while the works are undertaken. What is crucial is that the work must be done with a sense of optimism: with a belief in the duty to safeguard our historic buildings for future generations, and a conviction of the long-term strength of our parliamentary politics. It must not take a fire, like the one that devastated the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, to convince us of the importance of protecting it, restoring it and giving it new life.



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