16 July 2020
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown speaks in debate on the restoration and renewal of the Houses of Parliament

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown raises concerns that the stakeholders and the public have not bought into the project and, if a total decant is too expensive, makes a proposal that would mean the Commons could stay operational in the Palace of Westminster by using the House of Lords.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con)

Madam Deputy Speaker, I am delighted to catch your eye in this debate. My remarks will be made with some trepidation, because the Chairman of the Finance Committee and the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee are in the Chamber. I have been a member of both Committees for about a decade; I have been a long-serving member. I also draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a chartered surveyor. So I have lived with this problem long before it even arose and I have seen the decaying state of the Palace of Westminster.

In his excellent speech, the Leader of the House might have made the point that we are only trustees of this place. We are here for the present generation, but, above all, we are here for future generations. Why are we here? We are here to remind everybody that this is the home of our democracy. It is our history. It needs to remind us that our forebears went to war twice to preserve our way of life and democracy. I caution colleagues about indulging in the argument that we are spending money on ourselves. We are not; we are spending money to preserve our democracy.

This is one of the most important and iconic buildings in the world and, as others have said, it is a UNESCO world heritage site, which we are legally obliged to maintain in good condition. The standard of maintenance over the past few years has got worse and worse, as everybody can see. We only have to look around the Palace to see the amount of scaffolding, large quantities of which are because there is falling masonry. As one of the former Leaders of the House said, it is a wonder that mercifully so far nobody has been hurt or seriously injured by falling masonry. We need to do something about the maintenance of this place.

The Elizabeth Tower project has proved, largely for the reasons that the former Chair of the Finance Committee gave, that the authorities in charge of the maintenance of these buildings are not very good at planning big projects, and that is why it is absolutely right that the Sponsor Body and the Delivery Board were set up by Members of Parliament.

We must learn from history. The National Audit Office report makes it clear that the completion of renewal in 1870 was 18 years late and three times over budget. We must not make those mistakes again. The Sponsor Body started in shadow form, and then was made substantive on 8 April 2020 by the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019. It is going to make an interim report, supposedly by the end of September, and we should not do anything to fetter any of the options. I want it completely freely to come out, with all the options and an indicative cost, and then leave Parliament, the Government and the staff in this place and everybody else to make their judgment as to what is the right thing to do.

However, there is no point doing all that unless all the stakeholders buy in to what we are doing. Part of the reason we are here, eight years after this project was originally proposed, is that the stakeholders in general—the 650 Members of Parliament, the 800 peers, the thousands of staff in this place and, above all, the public—have not yet bought fully into the project. I urge those on the Sponsor Body to extend the 8 August deadline for consultation, have wide publicity as to what we might do and then let the Sponsor Body with all that evidence come up with the best solution. I therefore suggest that we have a longer consultation period.

Having established the optimal way of determining what we want to do, we then have to decide how we do it. As a surveyor, I have been a long-term advocate of a full decant, and I still maintain that the most economical and shortest way of doing this vast project is to fully move out. There is no question about that. However, if the political will and the impact of the covid situation on finance and what the Government want to spend have changed the situation so radically, I have another solution for the House this afternoon: do the project in two halves.

I do not mind about the sequencing, but basically the idea would be to move the House of Commons into the House of Lords and do the restoration on this half. Then when the House of Commons was complete, move us back here and start on the House of Lords. In that way, the House of Lords would move out to the Queen Elizabeth II Centre, which the Government already own. All we would have to do was compensate the contractor there. It would mean that Members of Parliament—the elected House—never actually moved out of this building. All the fears that we might never move back and all the fears that we might lose our traditions and working ways in this House would be largely unfounded, because we would remain in the building for the entire time. It also has the huge benefit that we would not need the decant centre in Richmond House. Indeed, we would not need the Northern Estate at all to do the project—we need it, of course, for Members of Parliament. Richmond House is the controversial bit in terms of planning and what we do with it, but we would not need it. At a stroke, we would save £500 million, as we would need only one decant centre.

I say to the House that we have been discussing this long enough. The Chair of the Finance Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), makes a really good point: we should not be here debating this subject this afternoon. There are so many issues of national importance. I do not want to be here in another year or two’s time still debating what we should do. I want to be here in 2022 voting on a precise proposal to allow the Sponsor Body to get on with the work. The time for talking is nearly over. We need action if nobody is going to be killed because of poor maintenance of the Palace.