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The Palace of Westminster is falling down

The Palace of Westminster is falling down


The seat of British democracy is literally falling apart — and MPs can’t decide how to save it.

By Esther Webber and Callum Tennant in London


LONDON — A funny thing happened in the seat of British democracy.

As parliamentarians prepared to take their places in the House of Commons on July 11, water began raining through the chamber’s ceiling.

The House of Commons had sprung a leak.

It took an hour, as staffers covered tables and placed buckets around the green benches to catch the falling water, before business could finally start.

At one point, police officers were seen entering the chamber carrying absorbent blankets.

Commons deputy speaker, Nigel Evans | Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images

The Commons deputy speaker, Nigel Evans, tried to laugh it off. “Somebody has just said to me this is one leak where we don’t need an inquiry,” he quipped.

He couldn’t have been further away from the truth.

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3rd November 1941: Bomb damage at the chamber of the House of Commons PNA Rota/Getty Images

Water pouring through the chamber’s roof might be the most conspicuous structural weakness in the home of British representative democracy — but it is by no means the only one.

Much of the Palace of Westminster dates back to the 19th century, and the building is showing its age. It hasn’t had a major renovation since after World War II, when large parts of it were rebuilt following damage from German bombing.

Its buildings are literally falling apart.

July’s leak was the second in three years. In 2018, a chunk of stone the size of a football fell from a statue of an angel to the ground below, leading to the temporary closure of part of the estate. Parts of Westminster Hall were closed in May after staff found stonework was “degrading at a faster rate than expected.”

Parliamentary authorities have to warn MPs about the risk of “falling masonry” outside the House of Commons | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The Speaker’s House | UK Parliament

The compound has also caught fire 44 times since 2012, new data obtained by POLITICO from freedom of information requests shows. In March 2021, a fire had to be put out in the Speaker’s House despite £9,243 in fire safety having been spent on fire prevention in the area.

Upkeep is a challenge. A 2016 parliamentary report found the buildings were “riddled with asbestos.” When workers tried to protect the Speaker’s House from fires last year, up to 117 people were possibly exposed to the carcinogen.

Then there are the smaller, but no less unpleasant, problems.

Labour MP Ben Bradshaw has repeatedly complained that his office is sometimes unusable because of the stench of urine. 

Labour MP Ben Bradshaw | Oli Scarff/Getty Images

When the Tory MP Andrea Leadsom was Commons leader, she was often disturbed by a rat raiding the bin in her office. According to Leadsom, another minister once brought in cats in to try to deal with the vermin problem.

What lies beneath the palace is particularly ominous, according to the 2016 parliamentary report, that described “steam systems, gas lines and water pipes laid one on top of another, alongside electricity wires, broadcasting cables and other vulnerable equipment.”

Mechanical and Electrical Systems in the HoP | House of Parliament Restoration and Renewal

“There is a substantial and growing risk of either a single, catastrophic event, such as a major fire, or a succession of incremental failures in essential systems which would lead to parliament no longer being able to occupy the Palace,” the report concluded. 

Maintenance managers have said that in the event of a serious fire, the emergency services would be able to save the people but not the building.

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Were the building to catch fire, it wouldn’t be the first time.

The oldest building in the palace is Westminster Hall. Originally constructed in 1097, its famous hammerbeam roof has yawned over the great and good of British politics since the 14th century.

Much of the rest of the original structure burned to the ground in 1834, after workers accidentally set the place on fire.

The Palace of Westminster on Fire, 1834 | WikiCommons

The Palace of Westminster on fire, October 1834 | WikiCommons

The flames were visible for miles around.

“There was an immense pillar of bright char fire springing up behind it, and a cloud of white, yet dazzling smoke, careering above it, through which, as it was parted by the wind, you could occasionally perceive the lantern and pinnacles, by which the building is ornamented,” read a contemporary report in the London Times.

Charles Barry | WikiCommons

After the catastrophe, a competition held to reimagine and rebuild the parliament was won by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin. It is their design — a neogothic structure glinting with gilt and presided over by gargoyles — that we see today.

Augustus Pugin | WikiCommons

The estate was damaged again during World War II. Again, rescuers prioritized Westminster Hall, while the Commons chamber collapsed.

House of Commons Chamber 1941 | Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 2385

It is from this reconstruction that the building’s inner workings date: a vast network of sewage, heating and wiring systems that were projected to reach the end of their life in the 1980s.

Over time, the estate has expanded. The Norman Shaw buildings were added in the 1970s and Portcullis House in 2001. A site that hosted some 1,000 workers in 1945 is now the workplace of around 3,000 researchers, office managers, clerks, librarians, security guards, catering staff and cleaners.

The winning entry in an architectural competition to design a new building next to the Palace of Westminster in 1973.The design was never actualized due to economic constraints, and Portcullis House was later built on the site | Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Portcullis House | Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

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It’s that vast army of employees, as well as the U.K.’s elected representatives that will have to somehow be worked around if the Palace of Westminster is to get the upgrade it clearly needs.

In 2016, a cross-party committee of parliamentarians was convened to study the problem.

They concluded that the ad hoc approach to fixing the palace’s mechanical and electrical problems is unsustainable. “It is like trying to fill a bathtub with a thimble while the water is draining out of the plughole at the other end,” read their report.

“Three-quarters of the work will be replacing the ancient mechanical and electrical services,” said Alexandra Meakin, a politics lecturer at Leeds University and a former Commons employee. “Since most of these reached the end of their expected lifespan decades ago, parliament has been living on borrowed time.”

The committee also proposed a solution: what has become known as a “full decant” — moving MPs out of the Palace while a full-scale restoration is carried out, including the gutting and replacement of the dreaded basement.

Three separate reports over the next two years — by the independent “sponsor body” created to oversee the work, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee — concluded that a full decant was the safest and most cost-effective option.

But not everybody agrees that moving out is a good idea.

Last year, the House of Commons Commission — a powerful management body chaired by the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle — asked the sponsor body to study whether the works could be carried out with the “continued presence” of MPs in the Palace. 

That exercise, carried out at a cost of £5 million, again found that a full decant would be cheaper and faster than any scenario in which MPs remained on the estate.

Not long after that, the Commission moved to abolish the independent sponsor body altogether. The body’s director has resigned, and other employees expect it to be wound up within months.

In its place, it will be up to MPs and peers in the House of Lords to decide how to carry out the refurbishment.

A full decant is likely off the cards.

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At its heart, the debate revolves around how best to honor British democracy.

Should the priority be to preserve its storied seat? Or in an age of financial uncertainty, is it disrespectful to British voters to focus on the pomp of parliament?

Many MPs are mindful that they were elected on a promise to “level up” the country — that is, to address the deep-seated regional inequalities across the United Kingdom. 

“Before I became an MP I worked in the real world,” is how one MP, Duncan Baker, put it. “We never shut any of our businesses, ever.

The previous Commons Speaker, John Bercow, was regarded as well-disposed toward the idea of a full decant, as was former Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom.

Hoyle, the new Commons speaker, and Jacob Rees-Mogg — who was Commons leader until recently — are both seen as hostile to the idea.

In their public statements, they stress the need to get value for money, portraying a full decant as the “gold-plated” option. “We need to ensure this place is safe and secure, but we must not turn this House of Commons into Disneyland,” Rees-Mogg warned MPs.

With a full decant almost certainly no longer possible, what happens next? The answer will be predictable to anyone familiar with the running of parliament: yet more reports.

Parliament has given a new body — accountable to MPs, and therefore not independent from parliament — a mandate to develop “a variety of ways in which the works can be delivered,” including options that don’t involve a full decant.

This new organ is expected to present its recommendations in 2023. That’s the year those who in favor of a full decant originally proposed MPs should move out.

Caroline Shenton, historian and author of The Day Parliament Burned Down, warned that the danger of another disaster should not be underestimated.

“I don’t believe that history repeats itself,” she said.

“But what I do believe repeats itself is human nature — and the inability of the inhabitants of the Palace of Westminster to get their act together about saving the building.”


Illustrations by Dato Parulova for POLITICO

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