The £14.5 billion nightmare

22 Jul 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 22 Jul 2022

The Palace of Westminster. Pic: Paul Silvan, Unsplash

In politics, as in so much of life, nothing is quite what it seems.

From the far bank of the Thames the Palace of Westminster looks resplendent. Home to both houses of parliament it is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, recognised throughout the world as one of the great symbols of democracy.

Yet the elegant façade masks a very different reality. It may well be a masterpiece of design, yet the real story is one of decay, dilapidation and neglect. The building is riddled with asbestos, there are cracks in the stonework, widespread water damage, warping and sagging to stained glass windows and cracking ceilings.

Some of the sewers are 19th Century and the constant leakage from the mid 20th Century steam pipes increases every time the heating is turned on in the Autumn. There could be a fire at any time and because the building has never been compartmentalised to protect it from the effects, such a fire could be catastrophic.

It gets worse.

The worst problems of all are invisible. They are with the mechanical and engineering systems - the vast network of pipes, cables and machinery that carry heat, ventilation, air-conditioning, power, water, data, and dozens of other essential services around the building.

Many of these systems were last replaced in the late 1940s and reached the end of their projected life in the 1970s and 1980s. They are out of sight too: most of them are hidden away, either in the basements underneath the Palace, or behind walls, under floor voids, within ceilings and in vertical shafts known as risers.

And it doesn’t end there.

The systems have been patched up year after year, often with new cables and pipes laid on top of old, and with little knowledge of what the existing services are, where they go, or whether they are still live.

The result is a dangerous and toxic mess, an accident waiting to happen. The cost of repair is unknown but impossible to accurately quantify until repairs have begun, the building is now deteriorating faster than it can be fixed and there is an increasing risk that a catastrophic fire or other serious incident could break out at any moment.

Anyone looking for a metaphor of a democratic system on the verge of collapse need look no further than the so-called Mother of Parliaments, the Palace of Westminster.

The actual cost of putting things right is unknown, but the latest estimates are astonishingly vast – the latest is £14.5 billion.

Given the cost of living crisis, the war in Ukraine and widespread dissatisfaction with political institutions and politics and politicians to describe that as a tough ask is , to say the least, an understatement.

The trouble is that with the building at very serious risk the choice is between MPs being vilified for lavishing so much money on themselves or being held responsible for destroying a precious national asset.

If this was a business with commercial buildings at stake the best option would probably be to bulldoze the whole edifice and start again.

But that’s never going to happen. Not to a Grade I Listed building and World Heritage Site of such symbolic and historic stature.

And it is not as if anyone is crying wolf about how vulnerable the build is to fire the existing building which was constructed between 1840 and 1870 was necessitated by a fire and the building was further damaged during the last war, when the House of Commons chamber was destroyed in an air raid.

The trouble is not just that most of the repairs will take place out of sight but that the public just don’t realise what a vast area they cover.

For example there is around 250 miles of cabling to replace which includes 130 miles of network cabling and 30 miles for broadcast and sound.

There are a total of 1,100 rooms and 4,000 windows 3,800 of which are bronze originals many of which are in need of replacement. New windows have to be handmade and stained glass replaced or restored.

And there’s more to it than that. Every service in the basement supplies a network which runs throughout the entire building, supplying every room in the Palace. It would be no use, for example, replacing antiquated electricity cables in the basement if the wires which connected them to the lights and power sockets in offices were still 50 years old.  This means  access will be required to virtually every cable, pipe and wire which is secreted underneath floorboards, buried in wall cavities, or hidden within ceiling voids. This will mean disturbing or removing many heritage surfaces in the building—lifting floorboards, stripping wallpaper and removing plaster, taking down wall and ceiling panels.

This will rather be pricier than  Lulu Lytle’s tacky wallpaper in the Downing Street flat. All the interior fixtures and fittings were designed by Augustus Pugin, one of the greatest of all Victorian architects who led the Gothic revival movement. And as this is a World Heritage Site so replacements that fall short would be unacceptable.

 When Pugin and Sir Charles Barry won the competition to design the palace in 1836 Britain was at the height of its powers and wealth and the lavish construction techniques reflected that. 

Completion of the building was far behind schedule and massively over budget. Barry had estimated it would take six years and cost £724,986. However, construction actually took 26 years, and it was also well over budget at £216,446. Neither man lived to see it completed. In 1852 Pugin suffered a breakdown and had a spell in an asylum, he died at home shortly afterwards, aged 40. Barry died of a heart attack in 1860.

Today the most cost effective, and fastest solution would be for both houses of parliament to be relocated for 19 years whilst the work is completed.

The alternative – allowing politicians to stay put and working around them could take up to 76 years, with a repairs bill reaching £22 billion with all the noise, disruption and potential for asbestos leaks that would entail.

This may yet prove the most attractive option for politicians, it might cost the taxpayer a lot more but paying the bill is spread over a longer period so the general public are less likely to notice. 

Either way don’t expect a speedy resolution to this urgent problem. Whoever is the next Prime Minister will not want to have to justify spending so much on politicians’ place of work at a time when others can’t afford to heat their food.

In the meantime the neglected buildings will get more and more vulnerable. The danger is that what the gunpowder plotters could not secure by stealth in 1605 will be achieved in the 2020s through the sheer neglect and incompetence of the very people entrusted with upholding democracy.



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