A multi-billion pound restoration project to shore up the crumbling Palace of Westminster could finally be agreed today.
MPs from a joint committee warned in 2016 that unless urgent action was taken, one of the UK’s most famous buildings could be at risk of a “catastrophic event”.
The neo-Gothic exterior was created by Charles Barry to mirror Westminster Abbey, with its extravagant interior designed by Augustus Pugin.
The steam-heated building – with its basements a tumble of wires, pipes and cables – was the scene of seven fires in 2017, while there were two hundred reported “toilet failures”.
But many have said action needs to be taken to fix it, with the outgoing senior parliamentary official Black Rod warning it could become “another Grenfell”.
The famous Big Ben bell has already been silenced while urgent work is carried out on the Elizabeth Tower, but consultants say there are serious structural issues throughout the estate.
MPs could decide to pursue one of three options:
:: ‘Full decant’: relocating both MPs and peers while the entire building is renovated.
Estimated cost: £3.5bn over six years
:: ‘Partial decant’: first MPs would move out while the House of Commons is renovated. After they return, work would start on the Lords.
Estimated cost: £4.4bn over 11 years
:: ‘Refurbish on site’: a rolling programme of upgrades while MPs and peers remain in the Palace.
Estimated cost: £5.7bn over 35 years.
The joint committee supported the most radical, full decant option, in order to ensure the UNESCO World Heritage Site remained intact for future generations of politicians and visitors.
Chris Bryant MP served on the committee and says it is the obvious choice.
He told Sky News: “So everybody knows that this is the most iconic building in the world loved by millions: tourists love to come here and have their selfies taken in front of it.
“It’s also got major problems, in particular down in the basement and in the roof; it’s a potential fire hazard, and there’s a real danger of a catastrophic failure of the building.
“We’ve got to look after this major piece of our national heritage.”
But there is substantial opposition to the plan, mainly from Conservative MPs who fear spending such a vast figure over a short time frame would be unpalatable to voters – with overspends inevitable.
Nigel Evans MP told Sky News: “There are ways and means of doing it over a much longer period of time, but I think the alarm bells have begun to ring while they’ve silenced Big Ben.
“We’ve heard the facts and it does seems to be running out of control, and I don’t think that the British taxpayer would really thank us if we all pulled out and the final bill came in at something like £8bn – it’s totally unacceptable.”
Wednesday afternoon’s free vote has been subject to various amendments, including one from the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, which proposes delaying any final decision until after a ‘shadow Delivery Group’ has assessed the cost implications.
If the ‘full decant’ is supported by both houses, the Commons could move – in 2025 – to the Department of Health on Whitehall, with the Lords relocating to the Queen Elizabeth II Centre opposite the Abbey.
Like Brexit, these plans arouse strong passions in Westminster with mutterings of a constitutional crisis if the Lords were to favour a different solution from the Commons.
The stage is set for another parliamentary rumble, pitching Decanters against the Stayers.