Parliament is falling down — MPs prepare to order a patch up job

LONDON — A major program of works to restore the U.K. parliament is under threat, with MPs invited to consider an alternative approach of “patch and mend.”  

Longstanding plans for a massive refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster have been hit by a series of setbacks and delays over the five years since MPs approved proposals to temporarily vacate the building while essential works were carried out.

Much of the landmark palace dates back to the 19th century — although parts are considerably older — yet it has not been properly refurbished since before World War II. The National Audit Office and other expert bodies warn the risks posed by fire and falling masonry are growing.

The project has been in limbo for the past three years with MPs divided over two main options: a “full decant” of MPs into temporary accommodation while work is carried out, versus some form of “continued presence” on the parliamentary debate.

The estimated cost of full decant has risen from £4 billion, when MPs first voted for it, to around £11 billion — a price tag many MPs feel cannot be justified amid a cost of living crisis. Estimates for the cost of refurbishment while staying in place are even higher, and would take considerably longer.

MPs had been expected to decide between the two options before Christmas, but POLITICO recently learned this would be scaled back to a Commons debate to “take note” of the options. 

That debate is now not expected to take place this year and may not happen until after the next election, not expected until May at the earliest, according to three people with knowledge of a meeting held Tuesday by the board which oversees restoration. 

The board also discussed introducing a third option known as “enhanced maintenance,” described by one parliamentary official as “basically a program of rolling patch and mend.”

This would effectively end the restoration and renewal scheme in its current form, a project which was intended to be “the biggest and most complex renovation of a heritage building ever undertaken in the U.K,” as advertised on the program’s website.

An MP who sits on the restoration board, granted anonymity to discuss private meetings, defended the downgrade, saying: “It makes sense to undertake other projects that can be done over the next couple of years and paid for within current budgets.”

Alexandra Meakin, lecturer in politics at the University of Leeds, said the scaled back proposal was “deeply concerning,” noting that “each week of delay costs millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and increases the significant safety risk faced by thousands of staff and visitors to parliament.”

A U.K. parliament spokesperson said: “The Palace of Westminster needs extensive restoration work to continue to serve as the home of our democracy for generations to come. This highly complex project to invest in one of the world’s most recognised buildings will support jobs across the U.K. and improve public access to parliament.”

The spokesperson confirmed the proposals to be presented to MPs were being updated and would be published in the new year.