‘A tale of decay’: the Houses of Parliament are falling down

As politicians dither over repairs, the risk of fire, flood or a deluge of sewage only increases. But fixing the Palace of Westminster might change British politics for good – which is the last thing many of its residents want

Britain’s Parliament is broken. It is a fire risk. It is insanitary. Asbestos worms its way through the building. Many of the pipes and cables that carry heat, water, electricity and gas were installed just after the war and should have been replaced in the 1970s; some of them date from the 19th century. The older the steam pipes become, the more likely they are to crack or leak. When high-temperature, high-pressure steam enters the atmosphere, it expands at speed, generating huge, explosive energy. Such force could be fatal for anyone close; it could also disturb asbestos and send it flying through the ventilation system, to be inhaled by palace workers. The building caught fire 40 times between 2008 and 2012. Last year, a malfunctioning light on an obscure part of the roof caused an electrical fire that could have spread rapidly, had it not been detected at once. Whatever else happens in the Palace of Westminster, that great neo-Gothic pile on the Thames, one thing is constant. Every hour of every day, four or five members of the fire-safety team are patrolling the palace, hunting for flames.

Away from the grand chambers of the House of Commons and House of Lords, away from the lofty corridors, away from the imposing committee rooms with their carved doors, the palace is tatty, dirty and infested with vermin. Its lavatories stink, its drains leak. Some of the external stonework has not been cleaned since it was built in the 1840s, and is encrusted with a thick coat of tarry black that is eating away at the masonry. Inside the building, intricate fan vaulting is flaking off, damaged by seeping rainwater and leaking pipes. Its Gothic-revival artworks are decaying: in the Lords chamber, the once-golden sculptures of the barons who signed the Magna Carta are now dull grey, pitted and corroded.

Beyond its state of disrepair, the building is all too obviously a remnant of a predemocratic age. It was built not to welcome its populace in, but to impress them with its fortress-like grandeur. It was designed when women were, at best, crinoline-wearing spectators of parliamentary life, consigned to the public gallery. With its chilly colonnades of sculptures of male politicians, its heavy, ecclesiastical furnishings and gentlemen’s-club atmosphere, it provides the perfect stage-set for Britain’s “very aggressive, very masculine, very power-hoarding democracy”, as political scientist Matthew Flinders put it.

The Lords Chamber in the Palace of Westminster.
The Lords Chamber in the Palace of Westminster. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Nevertheless, the Palace of Westminster is seductive. It wants to beguile those who encounter it with its fantasy of Britishness. The national mythology that the palace promotes from every frescoed wall is of a country where Good Queen Bess forever reigns, where the knights of the round table still quest for the Grail. Conservative backbencher Sir Edward Leigh told me that in his mind the building is inextricably linked with British freedom. “We are the only important country in Europe that has never been a police state, never had a police state imposed on us. We are the oldest functioning democracy of any major country – to me this should be valued. This is not just an office block. It’s the symbolic centre of the nation.”

Leigh is right that the palace is more than a just a building. It is the place – grand and tawdry, magnificent and squalid – that symbolises everything, both good and bad, about Britain and its democracy. Now it is dilapidated, ramshackle and dangerous. And no one seems willing, or able, to fix it.

“If you look back over time, there has been no shortage of people saying that something should be done,” said crossbench peer Lord Lisvane who, in his previous guise as Sir Robert Rogers, clerk of the Commons, commissioned a report into the state of the palace in 2012. “And then you look at the excuses for not doing anything: too expensive, too embarrassing, too soon after the war – which gives you a very vivid impression of how long this has been going on.” (The administration of the parliamentary estate, which includes a number of satellite buildings, is overseen by commissions of the Lords and Commons, akin to boards of directors, although the monarch still officially retains control over portions of the palace. There is no single chief executive figure, and a complex tangle of departments deals with the buildings’ upkeep.)

Screeds of further studies, papers and parliamentary inquiries have warned, bleakly, of a “looming crisis”, of a “tale of decay, disrepair and dilapidation”. The Cassandras who have authored these reports (most recently a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament) warn of constant danger of flood, of the “ever-present threat” presented by asbestos, and, most urgently, “a risk of a major conflagration”. With a hint of desperation, the committee, in its findings of 2016, compared the difficulty of trying to keep the palace safe, despite continual “aggressive maintenance” to “trying to fill a bathtub with a thimble while the water is draining out of the plughole at the other end”.

What is needed, the report argues, is a thoroughgoing renovation programme, preferably undertaken over about six years in an empty palace. The body that actually gets to decide on how to proceed is parliament itself, and in January, MPs will debate whether to set up a delivery authority – an arm’s-length body akin to the organisation that ran the London Olympics – to oversee the works. It will be the first time the question of the palace renovations has come before parliament.

Visible damage on the roof of the Palace of Westminster.
Visible damage on the roof. Last year, a malfunctioning roof light caused an electrical fire. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The problem is that MPs are caught in a trap. The renovations, it was estimated in June 2015, will cost a minimum of £3.5bn. (If parliamentarians choose to stay in the building, the work could take 40 years and cost £5.7bn.) Spending vast amounts of money on their own workplace feels, to many, politically impossible. Some of them fear that moving out of the Palace of Westminster could indelibly alter parliament’s culture. Flinders said: “There are those who realise that if they allow new intakes of MPs to go into a new chamber, with new atmospheres, new ways of doing things, places for everyone to sit, new procedures, new ways of talking, they may refuse to go back into what may to them feel like an antique shop.”

The temptation for parliamentarians is to stall. But doing nothing is also a choice. Every year of delay increases the cost of the works by an estimated £100m. Every day that passes makes a catastrophe more likely. Tom Healey, head of restoration and renewal at the palace, told me that the palace’s mechanical and engineering services – all those pipes and ducts and cables – are classified according to likelihood of failure. “By 2020, 40% of them will be at critical or high risk. By 2025, the figure will be 52%. By 2025, most of the building services in the palace will be at a very high risk of failure. It’s a bit like driving a car with 40-year-old brakes: you can’t say when they’ll fail. But the risk is pretty high.” As time grinds on – the projected date of the start of works has already slipped from 2020 to the mid-2020s – so grows the risk of “either a single, catastrophic event, or a succession of incremental failures in essential systems, which would lead to Parliament no longer being able to sit in the palace”, as the 2016 report put it. And if that happens, said Healey, “we have a very big problem”.

* * *

So many people are in denial about the state of the Houses of Parliament because the peril is largely invisible – both to the public and to most of its 8,000 or so workers. Most visitors see only its grandeur – enchanting still, despite the scaffolding that covers so much of the building while repairs are made to the roof and to the Elizabeth Tower, home of the great bell, Big Ben. The first thing most visitors encounter is the vast, echoing space of the medieval Westminster Hall, whose great timber ceiling is carved with 26 soaring angels. Then, passing beneath a new stained-glass window commemorating women’s suffrage, one of the few markers of a female presence in the palace, you enter St Stephen’s Hall. You are now in the 19th-century portion of the building: Charles Barry’s masterpiece of planning, each space flowing gracefully to the next, hectically embellished with Augustus Pugin’s neo-gothic detailing, from the gilded wallpaper to the ornate floor tiles. From here you reach the vaulted Central Lobby, from which radiate corridors leading to all the palace’s 1,100 rooms, seven floors, 100 staircases, and 31 lifts – only one of which is fully wheelchair-compliant. (When I visited, it was out of use.)

It is two floors down, however, in the out-of-bounds expanses of the basement – the principal home of the palace’s outmoded cables and ducts – that lurks the most likely source of disaster. Depending on the tides, you might now be beneath the level of the Thames. It is crepuscular; it is stultifyingly hot. The smell of fat is intense as kitchen waste works its way towards the drains. A layer of dust and grime coats the floor.

A labyrinth of passages runs the 300m length of the building, each so thickly lined with ducts and wires that they have become narrow and low. When I visited a few weeks ago, Andrew Piper, the head of design for restoration and renewal, ran his hands across a jumble of cables and pipes, naming each in turn: “That’s data, that’s the fire alarm, that’s security systems, that’s optics for broadcasting, that’s heating, that’s cooling, that’s steam, that’s water. We are particularly keen to get rid of the old steam pipes,” he said. “If you have a steam leak, there can be real damage to people. High-pressure steam can cut through bone.”

Something sticky dripped on to my hand. “This is grease and fat from the kitchens. It seems to be leaking on to electrical pipework,” Piper said. The Victorian palace was not designed, he added, to accommodate the sheer amount of water, kitchen waste and sewage that now flows through its drains. Down a gloomy corridor and a further series of damp steps, announced by a different kind of odour, are two vast, cast-iron vessels – the palace sewage ejectors, in which the effluent produced by parliamentarians and staff gathers before it is pushed into the city drains. They were installed in 1888. “One of them could easily crack,” said Piper. “We get sewage leaks throughout the palace.” Lord Lisvane told me that one of the palace’s disaster-planning exercises, undertaken when he was clerk of the Commons, had imagined a failure of the sewage system. “In that scenario, we had 36 hours before we had to evacuate the building. Aside from all the rather unpleasant stuff about the rising levels of sewage, the fact is that when it hits the high-tension electricity cables, the electricity is out, you don’t have any fresh water, and you are done for.”

All big buildings have their grubby, behind-the-scenes engine rooms. What makes this one exceptional, said Piper, is the sheer, bewildering complexity of it all. There is, he said, never enough time to remove defunct systems, since parliamentary recesses are too short for major works, and the chambers have to be ready for occupation at 48 hours’ notice, in case parliament is suddenly recalled (as it has been 29 times since 1948). That means the ducts and cables just pile up, one on top of the other. “The number-one fire risk is all these ageing electrical services, issues with leaks, wet pipework running over old electrical systems,” he said. The virtually inaccessible maze of Victorian shafts, through which these services pass, could, he said, provide routes for a conflagration to move quickly and unpredictably; there is no proper system of fire compartmentalisation. “That is my biggest fear,” he said. “That’s how you could lose a big proportion of the building.”

* * *

The Palace of Westminster is not just a citadel (“the citadel of British liberty”, said Churchill), it is a country unto itself. It operates by its own set of recondite laws, rituals and conventions. Once you are inside, beyond the security cordon, nearly all human needs are met. There is a post office. There is a hairdresser (a Newsnight-ready blow-dry costs £30). There is a nursery, which opened in 2010. There is a gym (with sunbed). At the foot of the stairs to the Strangers’ Gallery (or public gallery) in the House of Lords hangs a notice – now covered, though you can find it if you know how – pointing the way to the old rifle range, where special branch officers offered shooting lessons to parliamentarians as recently as 2015.

Travelling around this strange land is a fraught business. One is constantly committing mysterious, minor infractions. It is like being in a country where the language is comprehensible, but the codes of behaviour are opaque. From the Central Lobby, for example, four corridors radiate. There is no sign to tell you that you cannot take the one that leads to the House of Commons: but if you accidentally stray there, you will get an imperious ticking-off from one of the Palace doorkeepers (59 are employed by the Commons, and 23 by the Lords). There have been doorkeepers here since the 14th century: dressed in white tie, they control the movements of others with punctilious energy. I was reprimanded for loitering “on the blue carpet” in the Prince’s Chamber, and for speaking in the Royal Robing Room, which is sometimes allowed and sometimes not. Doorkeepers are also sources of gossip, wit and speculative histories of the palace. One I met suggested disapprovingly that “Comrade Corbyn” would soon be selling off Pugin’s wildly over-the-top royal throne in the House of Lords “if he has his way”. Another told me that lions depicted on the floor of a certain corridor “have their eyes shut so they can’t look up the ladies’ skirts”. Floors, as it happens, are important: green carpets mean you are in the part of the building owned by the Commons; red carpets mean the Lords.

Directions to the now-defunct rifle range, where special branch officers used to offer shooting lessons to MPs.
Directions to the now-defunct rifle range, where special branch officers used to offer shooting lessons to MPs. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Notices pinned everywhere contribute extra layers of admonition and exhortation. There’s a staircase that may be used only by MPs; a lift that cannot be used if the Lords are in division – that is, voting by walking into separate lobbies. The yeoman usher, described on parliament’s website as “the deputy to the gentleman usher of the black rod”, has a parking space reserved exclusively for his bicycle; a sign says so. In one courtyard there is even a sign advising parliamentarians what to do if they come across a grounded juvenile peregrine, which is try to throw a cardboard box over it. (A pair of the falcons nests on the roof.) The Lords, naturally, specialises in arcane forms of movement control. “Wives of peers’ eldest sons,” reads one notice, “and married daughters of peers and peeresses in their own right, before taking a place in the peers’ married daughters’ box, are requested to leave their names with the doorkeeper at the brass gates.” A different set of rules, needless to say, governs the movement of peers’ unmarried daughters.

The place is full of mysterious, hidden spaces. Recently, when historian Lord Hennessy, a crossbench peer, was showing me around what he inevitably called “Hogwarts”, he suddenly darted out of sight – up a narrow, red-carpeted staircase that led to his tiny, turreted office. On the upper floors, linenfold panelling turns out to hide secret doors leading to the roof. In Central Lobby, behind a statue of the 19th-century Liberal prime minister Lord John Russell, is an inconspicuous door. From here, 82 steps spiral up to the cavernous, dark space that houses the winding gear for the mighty chandelier hanging below. Being here is like standing in the dome of a cathedral. High above you a great spire rises, with apertures open to the sky, once intended as part of the ventilation system. These days, rain falls softly in here – “very romantic as it comes down”, according to parliamentary archivist and historian Mark Collins. (Less romantic is the damage the water causes to Central Lobby’s gilded ceiling.) Someone had been here before us: wire from a champagne bottle lay discarded on the ground. When I asked Julian Flannery, the lead architect on the restoration programme, how well he knew the building, he said: “No one knows their way around the whole place – except for the locksmiths.” Two such tradesmen are employed in the palace, he told me.

Hennessy is, he said, unashamedly romantic about the palace and its past: “When I pad the corridors if I am here late and everyone else has gone, I sometimes have a sense of the ancestral voices,” he said. (As he told me this, we were sipping stewed tea in the peers’ dining room; a waiter had brought eclairs on a silver tray.) Others are less enthusiastic. The Labour MP Chris Bryant, himself a historian of parliament, and a member of the joint committee, snorted at the notion that the place was romantic. The loos stink, he said. Still, he loves the place: he and his partner were the first couple to have a civil partnership ceremony here. One parliamentary clerk told me of the dampness from the Thames in winter and the overwhelming heat in the summer, of the mice that infest the place, of the difficulty of finding a wifi signal, of the general feeling of grubbiness she feels at the end of each day. But, she said, “the place gets under your skin. It’s like having two homes.”

In the Norman Porch, intricate fan vaulting is flaking away, damaged by seeping rainwater and leaking pipes.
In the Norman Porch, intricate fan vaulting is flaking away, damaged by seeping rainwater and leaking pipes. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Some argue that the restoration and renewal programme could be a chance not just to make the building safe, but to make radical changes that could improve Britain’s political culture. Among them is Sarah Childs, who, as a visiting academic to parliament, published The Good Parliament report last year. It is not just that the building is deeply gendered, she argues – heavy, unwieldy doors; an overwhelming number of artworks depicting men; dark, intimidating bars; seats from which shorter, female legs dangle without reaching the ground. It is, she says, that “the building facilitates, valorises, and rewards certain kinds of behaviours and performances that are disproportionately practised by some men – and exclude others.” One might glance, for example, towards the unlovely weekly spectacle of prime minister’s questions, with its shouting, barracking and bullying, particularly of women. When the House of Commons was bombed in the second world war, Winston Churchill insisted it was rebuilt exactly as it was before. “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us,” he said. Some might ask: is the palace shaping the the kind of politics Britain actually needs?

* * *

The House of Commons chamber, where politicians glare at each other across an aisle like hostile choristers, looks the way it does through historical accident. In the 16th century, Edward VI offered the deconsecrated St Stephen’s chapel, with its facing ranks of seating, to parliament as its permanent home; it had previously sat in the chapter house of Westminster Abbey. The basic layout of the chamber has followed exactly the same design since. Today it is in a terrible state. Leaving aside the problem that it has too few seats (427 for 650 MPs) and space for only one wheelchair, there is the fact that the concrete substructure on which it sits has asbestos-lined air ducts running through it. The only way to remove it safely, said head of restoration and renewal Tom Healey, is to break it out of the concrete in which it is embedded. “We’d have to dismantle the chamber panel by panel,” he said. He is also worried about the electrical cables, installed after the blitz. “A lot of them here still have vulcanised india rubber insulation. That eventually turns to dust inside the wall – then you have dust around your cables, and that is obviously a fire risk.”

It is in this chamber that MPs will argue about how to renovate the palace. The debate is much delayed: it was supposed to happen in late 2016, then December 2017, and now it has slipped again to January 2018. In fact, no opportunity for procrastination has been squandered during the entire process. The publication of the 2016 report was itself delayed, at the request of the government: first because of the EU referendum, then because of the UK’s abrupt change of prime minister. Yet more delay will be built in by the government’s motion. MPs will not be asked simply to endorse a “full decant” of the palace, as the report recommended. (Such a move would involve constructing temporary chambers nearby: Richmond House, the current Department of Health building, was proposed by the joint committee for the Commons; the QE2 conference centre for the Lords.) Instead, the motion will empower a delivery board to mull over the options once again – whether to choose the “full decant”, whether the Lords and Commons should depart in turn, or whether parliament should retain a “foothold” in Westminster Hall for ceremonial occasions. According to Bryant, this latest burst of stalling is “risky, and it’s adding millions to the final bill”.

In the basement of Palace of Westminster. Houses of Parliament. London. Photograph by David Levene 19/10/17
‘The No 1 fire risk is all the ageing electrical services, issues with leaks, wet pipework running over old electrical systems,’ said one of the restoration team. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The ordinary citizen may be left wondering: if the most important decision-making body in the country cannot make a decision, then what? If parliament cannot run its own building, then what hope the country?

Logically speaking, the doubt about what to do seems incomprehensible. It is arguably the most complex building in the country: it is parliament’s workplace, a royal palace, a Unesco World Heritage site, has myriad security needs, contains chambers and committee rooms that double up as television studios, and performs a role as a tourist attraction and as the symbolic centre of British democracy. Its precious artworks and building fabric all need conservation. It needs to be made a better workplace. It is, above all, dangerous. The symbolism would be terrible if there were a disaster: imagine news footage of smoke curling out of a hastily evacuated palace at a moment when Britain is struggling to establish a semblance of post-Brexit stability. Of course you tackle it. And of course you move out, because that way the work will happen faster, and more safely, which will be cheaper.

But this is Westminster. This is the world not of reason, but of politics, with all the hedging, compromises, self-interest, short-termism and sheer pig-headedness that that implies. According to Lady Stowell, the former leader of the House of Lords who co-chaired the joint committee, and favours getting on with the works with a full decant, there is a nervousness among some of her colleagues “that, as politicians, we are already hated, and so what sensible politician would agree to spend millions of pounds on our building?”

Because of the delays, and because prime minister Theresa May’s minority government is so weak, opposition to leaving the building has gained momentum. A group of Conservative backbenchers, including Sir Edward Leigh and Shailesh Vara, are contemplating an amendment to the government motion. They object to the building of a “folly” of a replica chamber at great cost; they deprecate the views of the “experts” and “officials” who have recommended moving out. They argue that, with what Vara calls a “can-do attitude”, the work could be done with parliament in situ, mostly through triple-shift working during parliamentary recess.

The language they use is precisely that of the committed Brexiteer: if only their plan is gone at with sufficient verve then everything will be fine; the problem is nothing like as complex as it looks; the experts are pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes. In short, they are in denial. “If parliament really really wants to stay,” said Tom Healey, “we will devise a way of doing it, but it’s important for parliament to understand what that means: several decades of really serious disruption, lifts being turned off, catering facilities closing, the chambers closed for two to four years.”

Stowell and Bryant think the project could be turned to the good: as a major infrastructural project, it will create jobs, and could be used as a boost for apprenticeships in the many trades and crafts that will be needed to nurse this Victorian masterpiece back to health. It could even, said Stowell, become a positive statement of intent in a post-Brexit Britain, when what some regard as a newly sovereign British parliament establishes itself. “We parliamentarians could use it as a way of reevaluating our relationship with the people,” she said.

The Commons Chamber, which has 427 seats for 650 MPs.
The Commons Chamber, which has 427 seats for 650 MPs. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Others take a darker view. Leigh predicts that the costs are bound to escalate. It will, he says, be “a feeding feast for architects and consultants and builders that has never been imagined before”. He may fear other kinds of feast, too. Westminster, these days, is a byword for many things, nearly all of them awful. The MPs’ expenses scandal still looms large in the public imagination. Trust in politicians is low. Westminster is considered out of touch, a bubble. The Grenfell Tower disaster has drawn attention to the human costs of austerity, and some politicians fear the consequences of appearing to put their own safety above that of constituents. (Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is alert to this: a recent letter to supporters contrasted the sprinkler system currently being fitted in the palace basement with the inadequate fire-safety arrangements in much of Britain’s council housing.) Recent revelations about the sleaze and harassment have not helped. Private Eye summed it up on a recent cover. “House of Commons to Relocate During Building Works”, it said. Below, was a picture of a sex shop.

* * *

Underlying the delays and the stalling and the being-in-denial, it is possible to detect a more fundamental anxiety among parliamentarians than the fear of frittering away taxpayers’ cash. It is the fear of an old order passing away. It is the the dread of a separation from a bizarre, rationally indefensible, yet alluring theatre of politics that seems so inextricably linked to British identity and history. It is a fear of bringing in new structures and spaces and behaviours – ones less likely to prop up the white male elite who dominate parliament. “I think there is an agenda with restoration and renewal,” said Leigh. “In kicking us out, the whole thing will change. Inevitably it will change. If you are out for years, institutional memory will die very quickly.”

Some would welcome that. There are parliamentary rituals that would look distinctly odd in a new or temporary building. For example, the speaker’s daily procession through the palace before opening parliamentary proceedings, accompanied by the chaplain, the trainbearer, the secretary, the serjeant-at-arms and cries of “Hats off, strangers!” Or the tradition of MPs physically dragging a newly appointed speaker to the speaker’s chair. Or the doorkeepers’ cry of “Who goes home?” as the house rises. Or the boxes of snuff placed outside the chambers. Or the placing of a prayer card on a Commons’ seat to reserve a place, like a towel on a sunlounger. Or the pink ribbons dangling from coat hangers in the peers’ cloakroom, from which to suspend one’s imaginary sword.

As for the Lords, “If we do decant, we will lose some of the elders of the tribe,” predicted historian Lord Hennessy. In a gerontocratic house that the late Lord Peston once said ran on “gossip and the exchange of medical symptoms”, some will resign from the Lords before suffering the upheaval of a move; nor will they wish to swap their panelled rooms and deep leather armchairs for a conference centre. “The peculiar combination of people in here will be remixed. The average age will drop,” said Hennessy. (It is currently 69.) Flinders said: “Some in the Lords are worried that they are going to come back and find the locks have been changed”.

The outmoded mess of cables and ducts in the basement seem the most likely source of disaster, said one engineer.
The outmoded mess of cables and ducts in the basement. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The most radical options have barely been considered by parliamentary officialdom. But many people, particularly members of the public, can’t help wondering: why shouldn’t parliament move out of London during the renovations? Or for ever? What if an entirely new building were to be constructed? It would be cheaper, at least: Scotland’s parliament building, which opened in 2004, cost £414m, almost 10 times over budget, but still a relative bargain compared with the billions restoring the palace would cost (though in reality, Westminster could not simply be abandoned to crumble).

“If we moved out of London, it would have a profound effect on our political culture,” said Labour MP Alison McGovern. “Imagine if we had a national competition for all the towns in Britain, and they could apply to become a city and get parliament in one go. What could be a more progressive thing, if, say, Barnsley could apply, and Barnsley could be the seat of our parliament?” Neil Gray, a Scottish Nationalist MP who sat on the joint committee, believes the debate about restoration and renewal has been much too narrow. “Is the Palace of Westminster the type of environment that we are looking for our democracy to be in? I’m not sure,” he said.

Even as McGovern and Gray spoke, though, I had the feeling of how fantastical their kind of talk was. Notwithstanding the glassy new parliaments of Cardiff and Edinburgh, Britain simply isn’t the kind of country that is willing to uproot its national politics from Westminster, the navel of church and state since the Saxons first moored their boats there, and plonk it down in Barnsley. When, after the blitz, one Glasgow MP suggested moving parliament outside central London – to some practical place with ample parking, an aerodrome and a railway – he was drowned out by cries of derision at the notion of a “Potter’s Bar Canberra”.

In a country so locked into its past, you might think parliament’s history would provide food for thought – because all this has happened before. In the 1820s, the Palace of Westminster was notoriously at risk from fire. It was also unhealthy, filthy and badly ventilated. The House of Commons chamber was stuffy and, on occasion, downright smelly. The House of Lords was an “extensive assemblage of combustible materials”, as architect Sir John Soane wrote in 1828. Everyone knew something should be done. Nothing was done.

And then, on 16 October 1834, a fire began when the House of Lords’ furnace was accidentally overheated. Flames engulfed the chamber. The conflagration spread with terrifying speed, taking out the Commons, offices, committee rooms, libraries – nearly everything but Westminster Hall. Roofs collapsed. Sparks flew like bright snowflakes. The fire raged so hard that the man who became the architect of the new palace, Charles Barry, could see its light from the South Downs, on the Brighton coach. JMW Turner painted the scene: it was apocalyptic yet, in a way, sublime. It was observed afterwards that the whole thing had been eminently avoidable. The prime minister, Lord Melbourne, called it “one of the greatest instances of stupidity upon record”. Caroline Shenton, the former director of the parliamentary archives, recounts the events in her book The Day Parliament Burned Down, and the palace’s rebuilding in another, Mr Barry’s War. (Both Barry and Pugin died young, exhausted by squabbling MPs, the latter after a stint in Bedlam, suffering from psychosis.) Today’s situation, Shenton said, was horribly familiar from her research. “MPs should think”, she said, “about whether they will be able to look their constituents in the eye when the place floods, or burns down – and Britain becomes a global laughing stock.”

• Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, or sign up to the long read weekly email here.


Charlotte Higgins

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Parliament is falling down. So should Dunsop Bridge be the new capital?
Haltwhistle? Rochdale? Dunsop Bridge? If our MPs do go into exile, they should find a spot that moves the centre of political gravity away from the South. But good luck keeping the Shetlanders happy

Ian Jack

07, Mar, 2015 @8:00 AM

Article image
Britain’s Notre Dame? Why MPs need to solve the Houses of Parliament problem
The renovation of the Palace of Westminster has foundered amid soaring cost projections, infighting and safety fears. Can anyone find a way forward?

Rowan Moore

03, Jul, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
UK parliament could suffer same fate as Notre Dame, warn MPs
Palace of Westminster caught fire 40 times between 2008 and 2012

Jessica Elgot Chief political correspondent

16, Apr, 2019 @12:09 PM

Article image
MPs plan to build themselves a palace. Have they lost all contact with reality? | Simon Jenkins
Parliament’s proposed ‘temporary accommodation’ shows contempt for public opinion, says Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins

Simon Jenkins

10, May, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
We can’t trust MPs to look after the Houses of Parliament | Letters
Letters: The exclusion of historians and archaeologists from the Westminster Hall repair project does not bode well for the rest of the Palace of Westminster, say Mike Pitts and Tim Tatton-Brown. Sell it off and move, suggests Christine Mottram


04, Dec, 2017 @6:49 PM

Article image
We have outgrown the Houses of Parliament | Letters
Letters: Westminster’s parliament buildings are archaic and inherently undemocratic argue Dr Louis Hellman, Mick Duncan, Lynne Armstrong and Jim McLean


09, May, 2022 @3:16 PM

Article image
Dragging parliament into the 21st century | Letters
Letters: Judith Martin and Jol Miskin agree that moving parliament away from London is a good first step


12, Nov, 2019 @5:39 PM

Article image
Parliament apologises for photographing rough sleepers
Contractor took photos of homeless people as they slept near palace of Westminster

Diane Taylor

19, Sep, 2019 @2:25 PM

Article image
Emmeline Pankhurst will stand her ground outside parliament
Proposed move of statue funded by suffragettes to Regent’s Park led to outcry

Aamna Mohdin

17, Sep, 2018 @11:51 AM

Article image
Parliament's art collection to include more women
Works depicting dozens of female politicians and campaigners to be introduced

Rajeev Syal

15, May, 2019 @1:31 PM