Clarity call over Westminster refurbishment

9
495

  By a Newsnet reporter

The SNP’s Pete Wishart MP has called for clarity over proposals for refurbishment of the Houses of Parliament following reports that it could cost at least £3 billion.

It is understood that the House of Commons Commission is currently investigating options for the refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster, to be agreed in the next parliamentary session starting 2015.

Officials in charge of the historic building say that it is plagued by structural problems including chronic subsidence, being built on the soft clays which underlie the north bank of the Thames.  A part of the site is on reclaimed land which was once boggy marsh.  A number of Tube lines pass underneath the site, and decades of vibration from passing trains has caused part of the building to subside.

The subsidence has already caused the famous clock tower, often but inaccurately called Big Ben, to lean 45 cm from the vertical.  Unless action is taken to prevent further tilting, the structure is likely to collapse.   

The Palace also suffers from electrical and plumbing problems, is full of asbestos, and does not comply with modern fire safety standards.

The current building dates to 1840, when construction began on a replacement to the previous Palace of Westminster, which was destroyed in a fire in 1834.  Construction works on the current building lasted 30 years.  The Chamber of the House of Commons was opened in 1852.  The clock tower was completed in 1858 and the building was essentially finished by 1860, but further work took place for another ten years.

The refurbishment required by the building is so extensive that it could be forced to close for up to five years to allow the necessary works to be carried out, the first time the Parliament has been forced to close since WW2.  Parliamentarians would be relocated to a temporary venue.

The House of Commons commission, chaired by Speaker John Bercow has asked a group of MPs, peers and officials to report on possible solution.  Options include constructing an entirely new parliament building, closing the building for a number of years and relocating to a temporary venue to allow works to be carried out, or carrying out work during the Parliament’s long summer recess.  It is thought that if this last option is taken, building work could go on for decades.

While recognising that areas of the parliamentary estate require upgrading, Mr Wishart has called for an independent expert to be tasked with considering the best options – rather than politicians – to ensure that the most cost effective solution is found.

Reports last week suggested the cost would be at least three billion for the refurbishment, with MPs potentially relocated while the work is undertaken. One supporter of the plan suggested that if the MPs do not move out the bill could rise to as much as £10 billion.

Mr Wishart has written to the commission seeking clarification of the plans, and a breakdown of the reported £3billion estimate.

Mr Wishart said:

“The early estimates for Westminster refurbishment are truly jaw dropping.

“At a time when Westminster is cutting housing benefit for the young, old and disabled, it will raise eyebrows that these same politicians are considering a multi-billion pound taxpayer funded revamp of their own accommodation.

“Greater clarity and absolute transparency is needed over these plans to ensure any spending is justified and in the best interests of taxpayers.

“Given the cost implications of any refurbishment or relocation all options should be considered by an independent expert rather than left to a panel of Westminster politicians.

“The mindboggling cost of refurbishing the unreformable Westminster parliament is just another reason why a yes vote in the independence referendum in 2014 will save people in Scotland that enormous cost and move all decisions to a modern, progressive Parliament at Holyrood.”