The House of Commons Treasury committee have urged that they be permitted to complete their own enquiry before any decision is made on the refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster.
The Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster is likely to be one of the largest major restorations in the history of the public sector estate. The consultants have estimated that the cost, if carried out over the minimum period of 5-8 years, will be between £3.5 and £4 billion.
Rt Hon. Andrew Tyrie MP, Chairman of the Treasury Committee, said “This is one of the largest major restorations in the history of the public sector. Apparently, it is likely to cost at least £3.5 billion over 5-8 years.
“This can only be justified to taxpayers if Parliament and the public see the evidence required to make an informed decision.
“The Committee’s inquiry into this hugely expensive project will challenge and assess the work and conclusions of the existing reports.
“Until such work has been carried out, it would be imprudent for Parliament to commit to a specific option.”
What work needs to be carried out?
Since 1992, every effort has been made to maintain what is ultimately an outdated and increasingly unsuitable infrastructure. Services such as heating, cooling, water, sewage, electricity and cabling have been kept semi-functioning, but have not been modernised. Astoundingly, there has been no real general renovation of the building and its services since the partial rebuild of 1945-50 – some of the services even predate the war. The original basements and vertical shafts that litter the building are now completely filled with pipes and cables, making further work difficult to carry out – which results in further expense.
Reports illustrate that asbestos features heavily throughout the palace and although asbestos remains safe if treated with great care in compliance with safety regulations, it makes any intervention so much more difficult. Another issue is that most of the work undertaken over the last 50 years is largely undocumented and since many areas are inaccessible, the state of dilapidation and subsequent risk is mostly uncharted. The building is completely at the mercy of fire, with little modern safety practices in place and fire compartmentation considered almost impossible.
The original roofs are no longer watertight and there are many areas plagued with penetrating damp, damaged by interior leaks and flooding.
So now at the crux of the issue, how much does it cost to renovate a 150 year old Grade I listed building which is partly sinking, contains asbestos and has outdated cabling? The short answer is ‘a lot.’ The sheer amount of work and the sensitive nature of refurbishing a World Heritage Site results in a sky-high estimate of between £3.5bn and £5.7bn, with some suggesting the sum could rise to as much as £7.1bn.
A 2012 report warned that “major, irreversible damage” may be done to the building unless significant restoration work is carried out soon, making the refurbishment one of the most urgent and arguably important renovation projects in the UK today. Some feel that the whole thing is a needless expense to the taxpayer and a vanity project for British Parliament. Another previous report concluded that the maintenance costs alone are so astronomically high that if the Palace of Westminster was a commercial structure of no historical significance, it would be far more cost-effective and efficient to demolish it and rebuild using modern methods of construction, such as modular offsite building.
Whatever you stance, the Houses of Parliament are of national, historical and cultural importance and refurbishment will happen. It should therefore be imperative that efforts are made to soften the bludgeoning blow to the taxpayer’s pocket, shouldn’t it?