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AHMM’s temporary parliament plans in jeopardy as costs review begins

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A review into the restoration of parliament, looking at ‘simpler, quicker and cheaper’ alternatives to building a temporary House of Commons, could spell the end for plans for the scheme by Allford Hall Monagahan Morris

Launched last month, the independent Houses of Parliament Restoration and Renewal Sponsor Body, which acts as client for the works, has announced a ‘wide-ranging’ review into the ‘costs, timescales and scope’ of the restoration and decant programme.

In 2018 both houses of parliament voted to temporarily move MPs and peers into a new like-for-like chamber for about eight years while the revamp of the Palace of Westminster was carried out. Lawmakers agreed this was the ‘best and most cost-effective’ option, following a 2015 report comparing proposals.

AHMM subsequently drew up controversial plans to gut Whitfield Partners’ Grade II*-listed Richmond House and install the temporary chamber and new office space – plans which were submitted to Westminster Council last November.

The proposals sit within BDP’s wider programme to revamp’s Parliament Northern Estate, which will also come under scrutiny as part of the cost-cutting drive.

The sponsor body has said it will ‘re-examine evidence behind options developed over five years ago, including the plan to relocate temporarily all MPs and peers while the work takes place’.

It will then make recommendations on ‘what opportunities exist for a simpler, quicker and cheaper temporary accommodation’ and on ‘how ways of working developed in response to Covid-19 affect options or requirements’ for a short-term relocation

Only a handful of MPs and peers are currently attending the houses of parliament in person, with most staying at home and conducting work – including questioning ministers – via video link.

Sarah Johnson, chief executive of the sponsor body and lead on the review, said: ‘The impact of the current health crisis on public finances and parliament’s ways of working has made it even more essential that we review both the strategy for relocating the two Houses and the scope of the restoration of the Palace.’

While the sponsor body can not alter the scope of the works, it said its review ‘will provide decision-makers with a framework to determine how they wish to proceed’.

The review has been welcomed by heritage campaigners, who have previously described AHMM’s designs as ‘state-sponsored vandalism of the first order’ and ‘a grotesque waste of public money’.

In a statement, SAVE Britain’s Heritage welcomed the ‘decisive and much-needed’ review. It said: ‘Huge amounts of public money are at stake and now at last there is a proper opportunity to look at simpler, cheaper and less destructive solutions. 

‘We believe this can result in saving time as well as a massive amount of public money. The Parliamentary authorities have been pursuing ever more complicated plans, way beyond what is needed to provide temporary accommodation for the debating chambers of the House of Commons and House of Lords.’

The Twentieth Century Society said it was ‘really pleased’ as ‘modest compromise on the size or shape of the temporary chamber would open up many more possibilities which could save both money and the high-quality Grade II*-listed Richmond House.’

It added: ‘Augmenting physical provision with teleconferencing would make relocation cheaper and easier still. We’ve been successfully running our committee meeting on Zoom and it looks as though Parliament may have been as pleasantly surprised as us by the advantages this has delivered.’

Earlier this year Historic England sided with campaigners, telling Westminster Council that it was not convinced the ‘substantial harm’ caused by AHMM’s proposal could be justified, as it was ‘the most harmful single proposal out of the range of possible changes to achieve a decant establishment’. 

Why does Parliament require major work?

The Palace of Westminster has a floorplate the size of 16 football pitches with 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases, three miles of passageways, four floors and 65 different levels.

Some of the key challenges, according to the Sponsor Body, include:

• The Palace is at high risk of sudden failure from major fire, flood or stone fall
• The heating, ventilation, water, and electrical systems are outdated and steam pipes run alongside electrical cables throughout the building
• The sewage ejector system installed in 1888 is still in use today
• Hundreds of miles of cabling need replacing and more than 1,000 spaces contain asbestos
• Thousands of ventilation shafts need upgrading to protect the building against a major fire

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The lack of comment here on this piece (so far) is surely rather astonishing; it would be easy to criticise AHMM for fully engaging with such a big juicy commission - but how many architects wouldn't?
    Now that the chips are down, the 'Parliamentary authorities' have (presumably) landed with a bump, and the sponsor body has hopefully accepted reality, the justified concerns of SAVE and Historic England can be properly addressed and the architects can show what they're made of.

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