MPs should leave parliament for £4bn refit, says official report

Committee founded to plan Westminster work says it will be cheaper for MPs and peers to vacate building during restoration

MPs and peers should abandon the crumbling Houses of Parliament for six years so that a radical refit costing up to £4bn can be carried out, an influential committee is expected to recommend on Thursday.

Running repairs are constantly underway at Westminster; but a joint committee of MPs and peers was established last summer to come up with firm proposals on how a more thorough overhaul can take place – including rewiring, and updating some of its Victorian facilities.

The restoration and renewal committee, which includes former leader of the house Chris Grayling, now the transport secretary, and the Labour leader in the Lords, Baroness Smith, has taken evidence from scores of witnesses, including architects and conservation experts as well as MPs and peers themselves.

The committee is expected to back the findings of a feasibility report carried out by experts including consultants Deloitte last year, which suggested that MPs and peers should leave their familiar home by the Thames for up to six years.

Downing Street sources insisted Theresa May had not yet made a firm decision on whether to support the committee’s recommendations, but stressed that she recognised the importance of the Palace of Westminster, which is designated a Unesco world heritage site.

The independent options appraisal, published in 2015, suggested moving to alternative premises temporarily would be less costly and ultimately more practical than trying to carry out repairs with MPs and peers still in place – a process it said could take more than three decades.

The committee is expected to support the recommendation for a full move. Last year’s report said: “If both houses fully vacated the palace this would take the least time and would avoid disruption to parliament from construction works”. It estimated the cost of such an approach at around £3.9bn, instead of almost £6bn if contractors had to work around parliamentarians.

The most likely temporary home for MPs is thought to be the Department of Health’s Richmond House building nearby, though some parliamentarians were alarmed by reports earlier this year of a drinking ban on the premises. The Palace of Westminster has several bars on site.

Peers, meanwhile, could be found a home elsewhere in Westminster, with one recent suggestion being the Queen Elizabeth conference centre, also a short walk away.

MPs and peers will consider the report and be given the opportunity to vote on its findings: the culmination of a process that began more than a decade ago, as it became increasingly clear that patching up the palace would not be sufficient.

As long ago as 2012, MPs and peers decided that “doing nothing was not an option” and “unless significant conservation work were to be undertaken, major, irreversible damage could be done to the building”.

However, if the proposals do get the go-ahead, parliamentarians would not pack up and leave until after the 2020 general election; and a detailed budget is not expected to be drawn up until 2018, by which time some parliamentarians fear the cost is likely to rise further.

The Westminster estate includes a hotchpotch of buildings from different eras, from the 900-year-old Westminster Hall, to the modern Portcullis House, with its vast glass atrium, which opened in 2001 and would be unaffected by the repairs programme.

But much of the Lords and the Commons is Victorian, built after the old Palace of Westminster was ravaged by fire in 1834, and has antiquated plumbing, wiring, heating and other infrastructure. As well as updating the building’s facilities, MPs and peers are keen to make it a more pleasant workplace.

The decision about whether to press ahead with the proposals is one of a series of major spending commitments May will have to consider in the coming months.

She is due to make an announcement this month on whether to approve the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant, after saying she would review the details, and the government is also expected to make its position clear in the drawn-out debate about whether, and where, to increase airport capacity in the south-east.

May told MPs at Wednesday’s prime minister’s questions, the first after the summer recess, that the way she works is to carefully consider the details of a policy proposal rather than rush to judgment.


Heather Stewart Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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