Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown leads a debate on the major refurbishment programme that is needed to protect and preserve the heritage of the Palace of Westminster and ensure that it can continue to serve as the home to the UK Parliament.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Restoration and Renewal Programme in the House of Commons.
Good afternoon, Mr Twigg. I thank you and Mr Speaker, through the Backbench Business Committee, for granting me this opportunity to move the motion. I also thank the Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), who has stood in at very short notice, because I gather the Leader of the House is required in a Cabinet Committee going on at this very moment. May I thank all my colleagues for attending? The right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) and the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) have been with me on the same journey for many years, through the Finance Committee, on this restoration and renewal debate. We have seen all the twists and turns. I also thank the shadow Leader of the House for being here to reply.
To begin, I should draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a chartered surveyor—although I do not expect to profit in any way from this whole venture. The Palace of Westminster has played a 900-year role in our political history. It is no surprise, therefore, that we are under a UNESCO world heritage site obligation to protect this wonderful grade I listed building, which has iconic status throughout the world. We need to maintain high standards so that it is a safe and accessible place for all who work and visit here.
The restoration and renewal programme has been briefly defined as a major refurbishment programme that is needed to protect and preserve the heritage of the Palace of Westminster and ensure that it can continue to serve as the home to the UK Parliament. Both Houses agreed that there was
“a clear and pressing need”
for the repair works to be done. There are a range of essential works that need to be carried out to prevent any further major fire incidents or falling masonry, to remove asbestos and to improve the services, which are cracking at the seams.
That could mean doing the minimum amount of work to ensure that the existing building’s layout remains largely the same, so that we are able to function properly for the next generation of, say, 30 to 50 years. It could involve making sure the building is entirely safe, with every bit of stonework thoroughly inspected, ensuring it is completely watertight, carrying out a proper asbestos removal programme so that everyone, both inside and outside the building, is properly at minimal or no risk from that hazard, and, finally, renewing all the services, as there is currently a significant risk of major failure.
A more ambitious project, which would inevitably add considerably to the costs and timeline, would see other major developments also taking place. The Palace could become increasingly more accessible for people with any kinds of disability, and services could be upgraded to the latest design, with digital future-proofing and improved, redesigned energy systems to provide optimal green standards to meet the aims set out in the public sector decarbonisation scheme.
As the Public Accounts Committee heard this week, the public sector has a target of achieving a 50% reduction in direct emissions by 2032 and a 75% reduction by 2037, compared with 2017 baseline emissions. The R and R delivery authority has set out an ambitious programme to enable the parliamentary estate to achieve net zero. However, it will be difficult to properly assess the details of how the policy will be achieved until a definitive way forward is decided. Even without that information, it is unlikely that the Palace will be able to meet the same decarbonisation standards as many other public buildings due to its historically old nature. The energy system, which has not yet been decided, could be completely redesigned to provide optimal costs and energy efficiency.
The Palace has four main floors and 65 different levels, with just one lift that meets modern disability standards. That means that 12% of the building is accessible to wheelchair users. I have experienced for myself, as I am sure other Members of Parliament will have, the difficulty of getting disabled people into this place. We have, under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, to do better, so that is an essential part of the upgrade in renewal and restoration. The programme is committed to improving accessibility, which is outlined in the business case, which has been updated following regular engagement with representatives of staff with disabilities, and with independent accessibility and inclusion technical experts.
However, the size of the project is enormous. It is estimated to cost somewhere between the Olympics, at £8.77 billion, and Crossrail, which cost £18.25 billion. The cost will ultimately be decided by the scenario chosen. In my capacity as deputy Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, I have seen time after time large public procurement projects—whether by the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Health or another Department —experience time and cost overruns. Some cost the taxpayer billions of pounds more than the original budget, due to the client—usually the Department—changing its mind on specification as the project progressed, always wanting the latest bells and whistles.
All this work is bound to come at significant cost to the public purse, running into tens of billions of pounds. Although it has been assessed that some essential work, such as the removal of asbestos, can be done in stages and by working around the usual business of the House—meaning at weekends or when the House is not sitting—it would appear that a level of decant for some period will be a serious option to consider, in order to prevent the time for works and the costs becoming completely excessive. As the Clerk of the House said in a recent Public Accounts Committee hearing:
“We have asbestos incidents about once a year…The asbestos is a really extensive challenge. The largest other project that we could find had about 90 people for 18 or 20 months”.
Therefore, it has become quite clear that it will be impossible to complete this project without some decant from both Houses at some stage.
The decant option would minimise costs, even if it is only a partial decant, or if one House at a time is upgraded, which would have the advantage of allowing one House—say, the House of Commons—to remain in Parliament throughout the period, allaying the fear of some, who believe that we will never return once the project is complete. It would also mean that important speeches at both a Government level and at an individual level—for example, a Member’s maiden speech or their retirement speech—can still be made in one Chamber or another.
A partial decant would allow all the necessary works to take place to remove asbestos to whatever is deemed to be an acceptable level and to renew all the services. It is technically possible to carry out the work around the House, but not only would that take considerably longer, it would not account for anything unpredictable found as the works go along. As any chartered surveyor in particular will know, no matter how good the intrusive surveys are, there are a huge number of areas—voids, floorboards, roof voids—where it is impossible to rule out any unacceptable snags being found as the work progresses. Those will of course need to be resolved, which means the project will take considerably longer. Thereafter, it would be possible for both bits of the Palace to be reoccupied—for example, both Chambers—with all the necessary essential services, namely restaurants, Committee rooms, and so on, by siting those services in nearby temporary structures.
In 2018, the House of Commons voted by a majority of 16, or just 4% of the 456 Members voting, for the two Houses to be fully decanted during the works, before returning as soon as possible. After that debate, the House of Lords approved a motion for a full and timely decant. In April 2020, the Sponsor Body said that it expected to start works in 2026, assuming that that was required to develop a business case by 2023. The Sponsor Body now estimates that the main works will start in 2027. However, the cheapest plan involves a full decant of the Palace of Westminster for between 10 and 20 years, with the work costing in the region of £7 billion to £13 billion—these were the figures given to the Commission by the Sponsor Body.
Another suggestion, which would cost the most and take the longest, is for the project to be done with the Houses remaining within the Chambers throughout the entirety of the restoration and renewal programme of works, with no transfer. It is estimated that this option would cost a staggering £11 billion to £22 billion and take in the region of 46 to 76 years.
The Leader of the House has tabled a motion for next week that seeks the House of Commons’ endorsement of the Commission’s latest recommendations. It seeks the approval of the establishment of a new joint department to take over the Sponsor Body’s functions. If the motion is approved, secondary legislation will then be required to abolish the Sponsor Body and transfer its functions to the new joint department, with staff TUPE-ing over.
In hindsight, it is clear that the Sponsor Body did not function as successfully as it could have, or even as it was supposed to under the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019. It was supposed to fully consult Members of Parliament, peers and above all people who work in this place, if for no other reason than to seek their views and see if there was a consensus on the way forward, particularly on the controversial aspects such as decant. More importantly, Parliament should have been consulted, because it was all of us who were going to be inconvenienced by this project over a number of years. I would suggest that this consultation exercise is critical for the new joint body.
Without a clear deadline or line of responsibility, there is a degree of confusion surrounding this project—unlike the Olympics, where the sponsor body was able to deliver because it had clear deadline and remit from the Government Department involved, so it had a much simpler task. It was envisaged that the House itself—the Commissions—would transfer its clients function to the Sponsor Body, which would then get on and do the job. Actually, I think the Commissions, authorised by the House, would inevitably always have a role closely liaising with the Sponsor Body. I think it was a disconnect, partly perhaps because of covid, that that did not happen. Suspicions arose, and the Sponsor Body came up with a huge cost, which the Commissions then said was unacceptable.
It would have been preferable if Parliament had been more closely involved in the decision making on this project. Far too much power has been delegated to the Commissions, instead of them consulting Parliament, as we saw in February when the Sponsor Body was abolished with very little publicity or explanation. Having had a series of hearings since with the Public Accounts Committee and meetings with the Clerks, union representatives and the chief executive, it is clear that the lines of authority need to be much clearer if this project is to succeed in future.
There is a further problem. With general elections taking place every five years or less, new parliamentarians will be elected. That will inevitably change the balance of Parliament, and that will change the parameters of the project. This will add significantly not only to the costs, but to the time it takes to complete the project. We have to find a way to ensure that, once we do have this proper consultation, we somehow enshrine whatever we decide we should do to take this enormous project forward and make sure that we do not continually add to it—to use my phrase, adding bells and whistles—because that will add huge uncertainty.
The misconception about how the 2019 Act set up the delivery authority meant that it was not able to talk properly to the decision makers before February. After the Commission’s had decided that the Sponsor Body should be abolished, the delivery body then started talking directly to the Commissions. This shortened line of communication started to unblock some of the blockages that had crept into the system. There is a misconception about how the Sponsor Body is responsible for restoration and renewable, compared to the sponsor body that ran the Olympics. However, it is now being abolished, and we will now have this new joint department. I urge that new department to improve its communications, not only with the Commission—to which it is directly accountable—but Parliament as a whole, so that it is constantly updated. If Parliament is updated, it can have a view on the whole matter, and hopefully the project will not continually need changing as it goes on. Major buy-in to the project will help with its more controversial aspects, such as the decant debate.
The parliamentary Sponsor Body failed in two important areas. First, it did not engage comprehensively with parliamentarians and staff to ascertain what they wanted from the project. Secondly, off its own bat, it gave unacceptably long decant completion times, which came with momentously large accounts attached. As I have said, the House of Commons and House of Lords Commissions became increasingly alarmed by those figures and decided to abolish the Sponsor Body. However, at a stroke, that baked in certain nugatory and unnecessary costs: £80 million for the replacement of an unwanted Chamber in Richmond House, £20 million for the fire safety system in the cellar—which will now need to be ripped out—and at least £100 million for setting up and abolishing the Sponsor Body. It adds up to well over £300 million completely wasted. We can all imagine what that £300 million would buy in our constituencies, such as upgraded school programmes and so on.
However, I believe we are on a better track, now that we can see exactly what was wrong with the previous line of authority. When the new department is set up, it will be working on a grid of essential works, which will help to ascertain exactly what timeline the new works should take place over. That can then be considered by the Commissions and the House, and based on hard evidence, both Houses will then need to be consulted again to establish the general direction of travel.
I am listening with interest to the hon. Member’s comments. As he says, we have been on the Finance Committee together for many years. I have some concerns, which I do not know whether he plans to reflect on. We have had long debates and many reviews, although I have not been involved in all of those. I thought we had got some agreement, although it was controversial, that we were going to have a decant and it was going to be expensive. Maybe there were concerns about how the Sponsor Body operated, but the main thing I am concerned about is that bringing the arrangements for the organisation of this massive project in-house will not necessarily solve those difficulties. We do not have a great track record in this place of managing large capital projects efficiently and well, and those projects were nothing like as large as this one.
My hon. Friend, if I may call him that—I have known him so long in this place—makes a very good point. I will come to that issue towards the end of my speech, which I am working towards, something the Minister will be glad to know.
The Palace needs to be upgraded to the highest possible digital and security standards, and if there are any changes to the working of Parliament, those will need to be accommodated. While I commend the adaptations made during the covid-19 period, especially for online working and digital voting, it should not have taken such an unprecedented crisis to push us to adapt those things for the 21st century. We need to be faster and more accommodating of change to meet the challenges of the modern world.
Finally, the education services in Victoria Gardens were only ever given temporary permission. A permanent solution needs to be found, with modern digital working facilities, so that the aim of giving a parliamentary visit to every schoolchild throughout their school career can be encouraged. If taxpayers’ money were no object—of course, we can never say that—there would be the potential to go much further by providing glass roofs over some of the Palace’s walkways and pathways, in order to provide extra work space. However, with my Public Accounts Committee hat on, we must always consider the taxpayers and the value-for-money aspects.
I have laid out what needs to be done. The much more important question, as the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) mentioned, is how it should be done to provide the most value for money and the optimal outcome for reaching project deadlines. As I have said, the project is likely to cost in excess of tens of billions of pounds. As I know from long experience as deputy Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the scope for mission creep and overruns for large Government projects, such as Thameslink, Crossrail and HS2, is enormous. The only exception was the Olympics and the reason was that there was an absolute deadline for when it had to be delivered. Equally important is that it was set up with a sponsor body that had clear delivery guidelines for completing the work. That is why the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 tried to mimic that governance structure.
Now we have a proposal to form a joint department in Parliament, there will be a joint client team, which brings me to point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East. That approach is fraught with difficulties. The Clerk of the Parliaments and the Clerk of the House signed off the contracts for the original Elizabeth Tower project, which was originally estimated to cost £29.9 million. That project has not even finished yet, but it is estimated that it will end up costing £86 million, which is nearly three times the original cost projection. It is unfortunate that the Clerks signing off and having legal responsibility for this project will be the same people.
I do not wish to denigrate the Clerks in any way—they are splendid people. They have huge legal and parliamentary knowledge and huge knowledge of parliamentary procedure, but they do not have the knowledge to manage a project of this size. To be fair to them, they were wise enough to create an expert panel of knowledgeable and well-qualified people, but it is unclear whether that panel will be in place throughout the project. In my view, it is imperative that it is and that the Commissions accept its advice. That would mean the decision-making process of the Clerks and the Commissions would get professional advice, in a form that is hopefully digestible and understandable.
What should happen next? The joint department should be set up as soon as possible, with the advisory panel being given statutory status, with an expectation that its advice be followed. Any department must be given the authority of Parliament. It should then widely and rapidly consult parliamentarians and staff on what is expected from the project and, within three months, produce a properly costed business case, which must be approved by Parliament. It must then move as swiftly as possible to putting the project out to tender, with strong expectations on timetables and costings. Any departure must be approved by Parliament. In any case, a quarterly update must be given to Parliament as a matter of course—not six months after the Sponsor Body has been effectively abolished—in line with the procedure Parliament has for HS2.
I am pleased that one of the recommendations in the Public Accounts Committee report issued yesterday is that the Leader of the House and the Treasury will be completely bound into the process of R&R. While of course Parliament funds the process through its debates and votes, the Government have a major input, because however much is spent on the project has to be raised by taxation. They are crucial partners in the whole operation.
I hope I have demonstrated that, not only is this is a huge and complicated project that is going to cost tens of billions of pounds and go on for tens of years, it is also critical to our democracy that we get it right so that future generations can benefit from it. If we—this generation—take the correct decisions and the pain of all the disruption, and do the project all in one go with the necessary, but minimum, decant, future generations will thank us. If we have a building project in this place for the next 30 to 70 years, I do not think they will. I do not think they will thank us if one of the Commissions’ objectives is that the work should be done on a short-term basis—make do and bodge, I call it.
Whatever work we decide to do needs to be done to the highest possible standards, meet the highest environmental standards, and be expected to last for the longest possible time, so that we can leave a legacy, possibly with some improvements—certainly to disability access, hopefully to education facilities and also to our way of working, through work on creating a properly digital Parliament—so that future generations can be proud of what this generation has done to uphold the highest standards of maintenance of our wonderful Palace of Westminster.
Mr Twigg, may I thank you again for the professional way you have chaired the debate? I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones). As he said, when he got up this morning, he had no idea that he would be responding to this debate. He has gained a great deal of knowledge in a very short time.
I thank all colleagues for participating in what I think has been a very consensual debate. It is almost universally agreed that we have to get on and do something. We may disagree on the emphasis here and there, but we have not disagreed about the need to do major work to preserve this excellent building for the next generations.
I will support my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton in the vote next week, although I have thought very carefully about it. Let us make a vow that we will not be here in three years’ time. I do not want to still be talking about this issue in three years’ time, should my constituents re-elect me. Let us hope that by then, we have a proper costed plan, with a timetable, and have actually started work.