UK parliament could suffer same fate as Notre Dame, warn MPs

Palace of Westminster caught fire 40 times between 2008 and 2012

MPs are warning the Palace of Westminster is at critical risk of a fire that could prove as devastating as the blaze at Notre Dame Cathedral unless rapid action is taken to update parliament’s crumbling interior.

The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said the blaze should be a wake-up call that major work would have to be done. “I’ve been in Notre Dame Cathedral several times. It’s absolutely stunning and beautiful and you can see the whole history of France before you there,” he said.

“You see beautiful buildings like that and think of the beautiful buildings we’ve got in this country. If any of those were destroyed in fire how would we feel about it? The state of the building is very poor in Westminster and a fire risk is obviously huge with a building that has so much wood within it.”

A multibillion-pound programme of restoration and renewal is to start in the mid-2020s after MPs and peers voted last year to move out of the building to allow the vital work to be carried out.

Fire safety teams constantly patrol the neo-gothic Palace of Westminster, which caught fire 40 times between 2008 and 2012 alone; the small fires were quickly put out by wardens.

In 2016, the Guardian reported a malfunctioning light on an obscure part of the roof caused an electrical fire that could have spread rapidly, had it not been detected. Parliament’s ageing electrical system and maze of shafts and corridors mean a fire could spread quickly and unpredictably, experts have warned, with no proper system of fire compartmentalisation.

The House of Commons leader, Andrea Leadsom, said the Notre Dame fire was a “crucial reminder of the importance of preserving our historic buildings” and said fire risks in the Palace of Westminster were being constantly assessed.

The Labour MP Chris Bryant, who chairs the finance committee overseeing parliament’s restoration project, said: “Watching Paris tonight reminds me of the responsibility our generation has for the Palace of Westminster, especially Westminster Hall, which dates from the 11th century.

“We have taken far too long already putting our fire safety measures in place. Parts of the palace are as old as Notre Dame and we must make sure that every fire precaution is taken as the major work goes ahead. God knows, we’ve had enough warnings.”

The Cabinet Office minister, David Lidington, Theresa May’s de facto deputy, wrote a column in his local newspaper, Bucks Free Press, two days ago saying parliament had been lucky to escape a major fire or incident in recent years.

“Several times in the last year, chunks of masonry have fallen off buildings. We’ve been very lucky no one has been seriously injured,” he wrote, shortly after MPs had to evacuate the Commons chamber because of a water leak.

“Worse, the electrical, plumbing, heating and sewerage systems are well beyond their expected working lifespan and in a dilapidated state. With each year that passes, the risk of a catastrophic fire grows.”

Much of the old Palace of Westminster was destroyed in a fire in 1834 and later rebuilt by the architect Charles Barry, though the 900-year-old Westminster Hall survived the blaze.

Lidington said the restoration work could not be avoided even if the buildings were turned into a museum and parliament moved to a modern building. “Even if parliament were to move permanently to another place, we would have an obligation to restore and renew the buildings,” he wrote.

“It’s sometimes argued that parliament should move to another city. The difficulty with that is that ministers are also MPs, and have to divide their time between their departments and parliament. So if you moved parliament, you’d have to move all the major government departments too, and still pay to repair the palace.”

A parliamentary spokesman said: “Fire safety is a key priority for parliament and protections are constantly reviewed and updated including at our active construction sites.

“Last year, we completed a major programme of works to enhance fire safety measures in the Palace of Westminster, and while this work continues, we stand ready to learn any lessons that emerge from the fire at Notre Dame to ensure we do everything possible to protect our people and buildings on the parliamentary estate.”


Jessica Elgot Chief political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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