Costs of restoring Palace of Westminster ‘a hard sell’ to public, MPs told

Getting the public to spend billions of pounds to restore Parliament will be a “very hard sell”, MPs have been warned.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has been told an average of £2million a week has been spent maintaining the crumbling Palace of Westminster.

But MPs and colleagues are likely to “be here for a couple of years” after the Commons and Lords decided to take over the restoration and renewal of Parliament “in-house” over the summer, when they scrapped the sponsors board that previously oversaw the project.

MPs and colleagues had agreed on a plan in 2018 which would see both the Commons and Lords move to temporary facilities close to the existing site, a “full decantation” to allow essential repairs and upgrades to be carried out.

But those plans, which were priced at £4billion in 2014 but have skyrocketed since, are under renewed scrutiny by the Restoration and Renewal Delivery Authority.

Big Ben repairs

The restored clock hands on the Elizabeth Tower (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Strategic direction for the team behind the restoration program will not be presented to lawmakers until the end of the year, the PAC was told on Thursday, with a detailed range of options including a recommended course of action coming later.

Sir John Benger, Secretary of the House in the Commons, said further delay in a decision on Parliament’s upgrades could have disastrous consequences.

“The building is safe, but in certain key areas it is in a state of disrepair,” the official told the committee.

“If we just wait and wait and procrastinate and procrastinate, eventually the palace, which is part of the Unesco World Heritage Site, will suffer catastrophic and irreversible damage.”

In addition to winning over MPs in terms of costs and possible upheavals, efforts must be made to secure public support.

“Spending billions to fix ‘your gaff’ is not going to go well, I predict,” Sir John told MPs.

“There’s a process of saying, look, if you want this palace, this iconic building, Big Ben, the Elizabeth Tower, if you want it to still be here in 50 years, that’s going to cost it.

“And, spoiler alert, that cost is going to be a very high number, and that’s going to be a very hard sell.”

Dame Meg Hillier, the committee’s chair, said the latest October incident report showed “really quite worrying” fire risks.

Fire damage at Notre Dame in Paris (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Fire damage at Notre Dame in Paris (Gareth Fuller/PA)

The Labor MP said the report included incidents such as a steam cleaning machine catching fire on scaffolding and a garment left on a portable heater.

“That sounds like Windsor Castle, Notre Dame,” she said.

Fire safety was the palace’s “highest risk”, said Sir John, who said he was “confident” his team had taken all possible damage control measures.

He said a new head of parliamentary security would be hired because he was “not confident” that security structures were “robust enough”.

There have also been asbestos incidents during work on some parts of the Westminster property, with a project manager “currently suspended” after failing to escalate an incident that occurred at Fielden House on Little College Street in December.

If the asbestos had been drilled into, the builders “would have disturbed it in a rather violent way and caused a very dangerous incident,” Sir John said.

David Goldstone, chief executive of the Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal Delivery Authority, said the scale of the asbestos problem was “enormous”.

“We think it would take about 300 people for two and a half years to tackle this asbestos problem,” he told MPs.

“It’s probably the biggest the UK has ever seen.

“We looked at comparative models, we looked at other large buildings that were demolished with extensive asbestos and they were smaller.”

When asked if that time frame was based on the Palace being empty, Mr Goldstone replied: “Yes, exactly.

“The volume of work is enormous.”

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