In this morning’s Times Red Box, Sir Edward Leigh mounts a spirited defence of the idea that MPs should remain within the Palace of Westminster during urgently-needed repair works.
This issue has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months as it becomes another subject upon which Theresa May’s Government appears unwilling, or unable, to make a decision.
And the clock is ticking: today’s Guardian reports that according to Historic England any further delay to the start of repairs could place Parliament’s status as a Unesco world heritage site at risk.
Thus far, advocates of ‘full withdrawal’ have been making most of the running in the press. Only a few days ago Isabel Hardman accused those MPs who don’t want to move out of being “frightened of their own shadows”.
But in light of the recent fashion for modish constitutional tinkering, and during the reign of this most self-consciously modernising of Speakers, it isn’t unreasonable for many MPs to fear that if Parliament is moved out of the Palace it may never return, as arguments about security dovetail with calls for a glass-and-steel horseshoe legislature “fit for the 21st Century”.
That private consultants are proposing to create a permanent new debating chamber in Richmond House, despite it theoretically only being needed for a few years, will have done nothing to assuage such concerns.
Sir Edward, however, argues that the case for a wholesale decanting of the Palace is not the cost-saving slam dunk that many journalists covering the story seem to propose. So great is the cost of permanently converting the Department of Health into a new, short-lived legislature, he suggests, that doing so simply because the civil servants are already renting new offices elsewhere (as Hardman argues) would simply be throwing good money after bad.
He outlines several cost-saving alternatives, including moving Parliamentary business to the House of Lords and Royal Gallery whilst work is done at the Commons end (and then presumably swapping around), or converting part of the huge and somewhat superfluous atrium at Portcullis House into a truly temporary debating chamber. He even adds that:
“Management consultants recommend a full decant of the palace, including debating chambers, citing the cost of a rolling programme of works. But further research has revealed that by working multiple shifts and weekends the difference between the cost of a rolling programme versus a full decant would be negligible.”
If the hard numbers are so finely balanced, then the “soft power” dimensions of the Palace really should tip the argument. Its true value is not simply that it is “a historic building… which has stood, in one form or another, since the 11th Century”, as Hardman suggests, but that it home is a living legislature. The architecture is precious, yes, but more so because it incubates ancient traditions alongside the conduct of modern democratic business to an extent found nowhere else on Earth.
Westminster’s power as a symbol of democracy around the world would undoubtedly lose much of its potency were it to be reduced to a museum. These isles are full of old and very handsome buildings, but we have just the one Parliament.
MPs should bite the bullet and authorise a programme of repairs. Historic England are right that the work is urgently needed and it is frankly difficult to credit that the public will be casting their votes in 2022 on the basis of the repair bill. But the works should be conducted with a clear goal: not simply to preserve the Palace of Westminster, but to preserve the Parliament to which it is home.