By Michael Gregson
The Mother of Parliaments is falling down. British MPs have finally agreed to move out of the crumbling Palace of Westminster to make way for the builders in a massive restoration and renewal project estimated at up to £5.6 billion – that's more than a trillion Sri Lankan rupees. But the politicians aren't exactly in a hurry to leave and aren't expected to move into temporary accommodation until 2025.
The famous Big Ben bell has already been silenced while urgent work is carried out on the Elizabeth Tower, housing the clock.
The old Palace of Westminster was not designed to house a modern legislature. On 16 October 1834, most of it burned down when a stove below the House of Lords caught fire. Work then started on replacing it with something entirely new, a building of classical structure and plan, with Gothic detailing. Architect Charles Barry was given the job of designing the building itself, while draughtsman Augustus Pugin added the Gothic touches.
Nothing of this scale had been attempted before. It covers eight acres, some of it on land reclaimed from the river Thames.
When the new Palace of Westminster was finally completed in 1870, there were 1,180 rooms, 4,000 windows, 126 staircases, three towers, two miles of corridor and the longest river frontage in London, at 980 feet. The building was three times over budget, at £2m, and had taken over 30 years to build. Both Barry and Pugin died before their masterpiece was completed.
In 2014, the consultants, Deloitte drew up estimates for three separate options for restoration and renewal works: moving out completely for six years, at a cost of £3.9bn; partially moving out for 11 years, at a cost of £4.4bn; and not moving out at all, for 32 years, at a cost of £5.7bn – the big mistake made in the past.
Costs have risen in the past 4 years, and even though MPs, Lords and all their advisers and civil servants are leaving, the current estimate is almost as high as it would have been if they'd stayed.
But there are still at least 7 years to go until they move out – and every day of delay brings the risk of a nightmare scenario – such as a flood knocking out the alarm and a devastating fire takes hold. There are about ten fires a year, and the palace is patrolled day and night by staff looking for smoke.
No firm decision has yet been made about where to put the politicians while their traditional home is being done up.
One suggestion by the Architect Lord Foster is for a nearby "pop-up Parliament".
The glass and steel structure would have all the modern conveniences, as well as incorporating the fixtures and fittings of the debating chambers. "You could re-create the existing Commons and Lords down to the cracks in the leather. Think of it as a building within a building. By prefabricating everything, you could achieve this in a one-year programme," said the architect.
But officials have poured cold water on the idea because the only suitable location is Horse Guards Parade – where royal and military events are held.
Some commentators have advocated abandoning the Palace for good and moving to a new building that "reflects modern Britain". Arguing that the renovation will cost the equivalent of building six much needed modern hospitals, they propose instead to build a new Parliament with modern facilities, sufficient office space and decent plumbing. The most likely scenario is that MPs will move to Richmond House, in nearby Whitehall, currently home to the Department of Health and Social Care, while the Lords could use the Queen Elizabeth II Centre, a conference facility just off Parliament Square. But this plan could force the closure of two famous pubs, where politicians, locals and tourists mingle freely. Both the St. Stephens Tavern and the Red Lion could be seized by Parliament and closed as part of a massive security ring which would be thrown around the area.
MPs want to retain "a foothold" in the palace and return for great occasions. Perhaps they think of themselves like the ravens in the Tower of London.
According to myth, if the birds leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall. Last year, Labour's Margaret Beckett said that if MPs left, they might never return.
She did not mention ravens – but someone is bound too.
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