They had probably the worst clients in history. Parliament needed a new home after the medieval Westminster Palace burnt down in 1834. Charles Barry got the job of designing and building it, and he brought in Augusts Pugin to help him. They created one of the greatest 19th-century buildings in the world, that now represents our nation and our democracy as a globally famous icon. But they had to fight to do it.
A Royal Commission oversaw the work. That wasn’t enough for the politicians. They couldn’t leave Barry alone. Throughout the project he was examined by committees, and publicly attacked by Lords and MPs. The House of Commons is a dark, claustrophobic place because MPs forced him into a design that valued acoustics over light and comfort: they wanted to be heard. The Treasury finally agreed to pay Barry an absurdly low fee nearly three years into construction. He was still working on the much delayed palace when he died. Only six out of 658 MPs subscribed to a memorial.
We have inherited one of the costs of political interference and grandstanding during the building of the Palace of Westminster: design and construction flaws. Stone crumbles, roofs leak. Failure to properly maintain the buildings over the past century has hugely compounded these problems. Parliament now faces a big decision. Does it want to abandon its history of mean-spirited, ego-driven, incompetent and meddling management, and save the palace by choosing the safest, cheapest and quickest way to do it? Or does it want put its personal convenience and profile first, spend billions of pounds more and take decades longer, while risking the safety of the buildings and everyone in them? You guess.
The new edition of British Archaeology takes a detailed look at Westminster – the abbey, the palace (old and new) and the extraordinary, unparalleled richness of our spectacular world heritage site beside the river Thames. A variety of distinguished writers show how even late in the last century, the archaeology and heritage of this site had been disgracefully neglected. The abbey is catching up fast under its archaeologist, Warwick Rodwell (who contributes one of the features). Now it is parliament’s turn to do the right thing.
The great Victorian Gothic fantasy known as the Palace of Westminster is home to our national government. Nestling among its spectacular corridors, halls and towers are the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Big Ben may be the most globally recognised symbol of stable democracy. The riverside location has witnessed political power, drama and history-making as far back as Edward the Confessor, before the Norman Conquest: all being well, many alive today will celebrate its continuous occupancy for 1,000 years.
This national icon, this glorious carnival of identity, tradition, free debate and peace, is in serious trouble. It may catch fire. It may become awash with sewage. The roofs leak, the walls are flaking, and any day the entire system of plumbing, heating, wiring, security and communications may collapse, without anyone knowing exactly why. This is the legacy of decades of underinvestment, as problems of safety, dilapidation and unsuitability ballooned under incompetent management lacking democratic accountability.
The good news is that parliament has faced up to the issue. It has commissioned thorough research, and been given a viable solution – a “restoration and renewal programme”. The bad news, but hardly a surprise, is that it will be very expensive. But unless we want to demolish the place and start again (also at enormous cost), restoration is not an option: it is a necessity. Sooner rather than later, if nothing is done, the buildings will become dangerous and dysfunctional far beyond the point when the problems can be ignored, and everyone will have to find somewhere else from which to run the country.
In March the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts reported on the restoration proposals. An independent study had come up with three plans:
Option One: this would cost £5.7 billion, and take 32 years.
Option Two: £3.9 billion, 11 years.
Option Three: £3.5 billion, six years.
Which would you choose? This is taxpayers’ money, to be spent on an absolutely central and living part of our heritage, and an internationally famous symbol of British identity and democracy.
It seems obvious. Who would not go for the cheapest and quickest solution – and, incidentally, the safest? Option one, the most expensive, would take so long that the whole place might self-destruct before the project was finished. It’s got to be done. We’d choose option three, six years’ work for £3.5 billion.
That is exactly what the Public Accounts committee decided. “Without hesitation,” it concluded, in case anyone wondered if it had any doubts, it recommended option three, and that work should start as soon as possible.
Theresa May has said parliament can vote on the plans. This would have happened by now, but for two incidents which underline the palace’s political and cultural power – the very reasons we should want to get on with restoration: a violent attack outside, and a debate inside on the letter which initiated our departure from the European Union. The vote will now occur after Lords and members of parliament return from the Easter recess in April.
This vote, surely, will support option three. Yet there is a strong movement against it. Several MPs, including the chair of the Commons Treasury Select Committee, Andrew Tyrie MP, have questioned the costs. Sir Edward Leigh MP wants the Lords and the Commons to continue to meet in the palace while repairs take place: in today’s Times (April 5), he claims “The majority opinion among MPs” is on his side. They want a programme that would be some sort of fudge between options one and two – with no details, no costings and little agreement among the objectors as to exactly what should be done, we might feel justified in calling this option zero, costing more and taking longer than anything on offer.
Why this madness? What the MPs do not like is that the most efficient and safest way to renew the palace – option three – includes having them all move into alternative premises while works proceed; this is known as decanting. The more they stay while works progress around them, the higher the bill and the longer it takes. Some argue that parliament would lose its eminent authority if it temporarily vacated the famous site. Others worry that once out, no one would let them back in again. Both are absurd propositions.
Most revealing, however, is the common argument that now is not the time to spend such large a sum as option one demands on “their” home – even though not decanting results in a far bigger bill. Contrary to what the objectors might seem to think, the architectural and historic glories of parliament are not just a benefit for sitting MPs. They belong to us all. To the world.
How would we be remembered? As the generation that brought back a blue passport? Or the one that, for just seven times the cost of changing the colour of a small document we try not to lose on holidays, saved the Palace of Westminster and made it safe and fit for modern, publicly engaged government?
• Writers for this feature include Steven Brindle, Tim Tatton-Brown, John Crook, Warwick Rodwell, David Harrison, Richard Simmons and a team from Historic England (Sandy Kidd, Paddy Elson & Patrick Booth), with comment from Colin Renfrew (Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn) and Tim Loughton MP.
British Archaeology is available in digital now, and in the shops on Friday. (All photos above are mine.)