Geoffrey Clifton-Brown speaks in debate on the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster

25th January 2017
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown speaks in a debate on the restoration of Parliament and calls for a full decant of the Palace whilst works take place, as this is the only practical way to enable a complete restoration of the building.

I am grateful to have caught your eye, Mr Flello. As one of the few chartered surveyors in the House and as a member of the Finance Committee for more than 10 years, I have been heavily involved with this matter from well before the inception of the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster, and all the way through to date. The Palace of Westminster is an iconic symbol of this nation. It is absolutely symbolic of everything the UK stands for. In many ways, the strength of our democracy is upheld by the strength of our Parliament encased in these buildings. As politicians, we have an absolute duty to the people of this country and to future parliamentarians to maintain it properly and get this whole thing right.

Much has been said in the debate, so I will be brief. Over the course of our history, including following the damage caused by the burning of Parliament in 1834 and 14 separate bombings during the blitz in 1940, only piecemeal repairs have been carried out. It is surprising to say the least, considering Great Britain’s prowess for engineering thoroughness, maintenance and ability, that no comprehensive record has been kept of what work has or has not been done on the building.

I will briefly outline what is wrong in layman’s terms. When any system or service has failed in the past, there has been simply a “make do and mend” response—a pipe added here or a wire added there. The high pressure steam heating system is encased in asbestos insulation, which has remained well beyond its designed lifespan and original capacity. It could burst and produce asbestos fibre at any minute. The main sewage pump needs replacing, as does the electricity supply, which is liable to major failure. It is unacceptable that Parliament could be plunged into darkness at any minute during great occasions, such as the Queen’s Speech during the state opening of Parliament. There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that this work needs to be done.

The timing of the restoration and renewal works is crucial. As a chartered surveyor, my view is that the entire building must be cleared so that all of the asbestos can be removed in one go, and as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, so that all of the services—water, electricity, sewage, internet and so on—can be renewed and separated in one concerted action. Doing that piecemeal or by partial decant is completely impractical.

Other concerns have been raised, first that Parliament will never return. Frankly, after an expenditure of £3.5 billion, that would be a national scandal. The second concern is what will happen to MPs who are here for only one term. The delivery authority will have to ensure that the Chamber is open for at least part of any Parliament. The third concern is the legislative status of the temporary Chamber in Richmond House. For goodness’ sake, surely we can design something that is worthy of this Parliament? If that cannot be done in Richmond House, let us put it in the Foreign Office or the Treasury. That problem can surely be overcome.

I will address the fourth concern for a minute or two. A lot of concerns have been raised, including by me, about the cost and delivery of this enormous project. I have done a little bit of research, and the nearest comparable project I could find was the demolition of Chelsea barracks, which cost £3 billion. That was a third smaller than this place, which covers 73,000 square metres. It is therefore likely that the cost of this project will be well in excess of £3 billion. That cost is well-substantiated by Deloitte in its report.

The report is excellent on financial grounds, but the problem is that the report has not scoped the work properly, so I do not know how it can be completely costed. That is why a shadow delivery authority needs to properly scope the work, consult parliamentarians on what is needed in this place and come up with realistic costings. However, Deloitte makes the important point that, for every year of delay, we add £60 million to £85 million to the cost of the project.

The only option is a full decant and a continuous, unbroken period of restoration and renewal. It is our responsibility to get on with this work, so that future generations and parliamentarians do not make the same mistakes as previous generations. Indeed, we are in grave danger of making the same mistakes ourselves if we go for a partial or continuous repair option—options one and two in the report.

The public support the project. We need to appoint a shadow delivery authority as soon as possible to scope the work, consult parliamentarians on what facilities they want in place—as the hon. Member for Rhondda said, the disabled access is appalling and it is a scandal that we have such poor facilities for our guests—produce proper costings and report back to Parliament. The work must then be enshrined in statute, so that a statutory delivery authority can begin to get on with the work as early as possible in the next Parliament.

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