Can Chuka Umunna save the Palace of Westminster? Somebody has to

Tidy cartoon CBA

Chuka Umunna, says Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times, is “the man Tories fear most”. He’s bright, “an alpha-male politician”, and perhaps “a future candidate for the leadership of the Labour party” (Guardian) – “a potential future leader” (Telegraph). In other words, in five years’ time he could be pulling off what Ed Miliband failed to do, and leading a new UK government in Westminster.

But hang on, apparently he wants Parliament to vacate the palace.

“We should be saying”, he writes in today’s Observer, “it is time for parliament to move out of the relic that is the Palace of Westminster and into a new, modern, accessible site fit for purpose”.

Now, you can read that as a disdain for great architecture and heritage, as Jonathan Jones does. But I like to think it’s the opposite. That what Umunna is really saying, is what Spoilheap sets out in the current edition of British Archaeology.

Today, continues Umunna, is time “for a serious debate about the electoral system, for an elected Senate in place of the outdated House of Lords.” That suggests his dismissal of the Palace of Westminster may have more to do with its traditions, than its crumbling stonework. Elsewhere in the Observer piece he writes, “We must stop looking to the past, and focus on ensuring everyone has a stake in the future.” That is clearly about policies, not heritage.

In his own life, he has said, “I have a really strong sense of my history, my heritage and my different cultures” (his father was Nigerian, his mother is Anglo-Irish). We might reasonably expect him to extend that understanding to the world around him – and not least to the extraordinary thing that is the Palace of Westminster, a world heritage site.

Spoilheap reviews the case for moving the Lords and the Commons out of the palace – and comes down firmly in favour of doing so. This is not driven by politics, but by heritage. To quote Spoilheap:

“In March, Commons speaker John Bercow did the brave thing… If parliament wished to remain in the palace, he said, refurbishment at a cost of at least £3bn was inevitable.”

A report had concluded that the state of the palace was so bad, the only way forward, if it wasn’t to be demolished or left to fall down, was to set up a management body like the Olympic Delivery Authority, and move everyone out. Then the builders could have unrestricted access, and do what was necessary. In the meantime, the Commons could be put into a new temporary building nearby, and the Lords could be accommodated in existing premises.

“The outcome”, says Spoilheap, “would be a seat of government that was cheaper to run, more suited to use, safe, accessible and with a reduced carbon footprint. During the work there would be tremendous heritage opportunities, for research, exhibitions and education. The history and purpose of parliament would be debated. The project would enthuse other historic building schemes, and be an example for sustainable conservation; many craftspeople would gain unique experiences. And the Palace of Westminster would be assured a future.”

“It’s up to parliament. Will it act on a report it commissioned, and honour its electorate? Or will it continue to walk backwards in funny dress, provide snuff for members, endorse bills in Norman French, shout obscure phrases like “Who goes home?”, and generally preserve traditions that do little to encourage efficient democracy or public engagement, while a world heritage site falls down around its ears?”

The palace has got into the state it is, a profound national scandal, because of appalling management, and because its incumbents cared more for traditional fripperies than the buildings in which they have been privileged to serve.

“Considering the age of the Palace of Westminster,” noted a 2012 study, “the 60+ years that have passed since the partial post-war refurbishment, the long-term under-investment in the fabric and the intensive use to which the Palace is put, it is remarkable that it continues to function.”

You can read the whole Spoilheap column in the May/June edition of British Archaeology. If your name is Chuka Umunna, and you can’t find a copy, let me know, and I’ll see you get one. A functioning parliament is, after all, what you rightly want.


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