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Let’s have honesty about the costs of the Westminster retrofit

Paul Finch

The real budget for refurbishing the Houses of Parliament must surely be far higher than the £4 billion quoted, writes Paul Finch

I recently stayed overnight at Port Lympne, the Herbert Baker house in Kent designed for plutocrat and local MP Philip Sassoon just before the First World War. Now a hotel, it is a remarkable place, with interiors by Philip Tilden and two rooms with extant wall paintings by Rex Whistler. 

Well worth a visit – and not just because of its varied architectural history (it was effectively abandoned after wartime use until 1975). The house is now the centrepiece of the Aspinall Trust outdoor zoo, ranging over 240ha, where, among other creatures, you can see magnificent giraffes, tigers and apes, many of the animals being bred or rescued prior to a return to the wild, and many looked after as part of attempts to prevent species extinction.

The Old Men at the Zoo is a 1961 satire about a society incapable of making decisions, taking place in the context of deteriorating relations with Europe. Sound familiar?

Port Lympne is run with cheery efficiency; I couldn’t help thinking about its fictional opposite: the version depicted in Angus Wilson’s now almost-forgotten 1961 novel, The Old Men at the Zoo. A savage satire about a society incapable of making decisions without suffering from incompetence or self-serving ambition, it takes place in the context of deteriorating relations with continental Europe. Sound familiar?

One of the novel’s characters wants to move the zoo from London to a new site in the countryside, with far greater freedom for the animals. Down in Kent you can see how it works.

Meanwhile, in Whitehall

The old men and women at the Palace of Westminster are providing further parallels to the world of Angus Wilson, as they go about the fraught business of retrofitting the Barry and Pugin masterpiece. While Brexit goes into meltdown, the tribunes of the people ponder the best way of managing a multi-billion pound project, no doubt aspiring to a result which is ‘on time and on budget’.

The equivalent of the Olympic Delivery Authority will oversee the work, led by the former British Property Federation chief exec, Liz Peace. A joint Parliamentary committee has just concluded that, unlike the ODA, the new body should not be given planning powers because Parliament should not be given special treatment. However, this is not a normal planning application, and the committee’s apparent obsession with ‘disabled access’ and ‘staff consultation’ makes you wonder whether they have really thought about the implications of this project for democracy itself, never mind building regulations. 

By the way, is it only £4 billion? The real budget must be considerably greater because the quoted sum is only what the restoration and renewal works, overseen by BDP, will cost. Add the new chamber being created by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris in William Whitfield’s Richmond House building at the top of Whitehall. Question: will this be temporary or permanent? Then there are the costs associated with running the House of Lords out of the Powell & Moya’s Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre … plus relocating administrative staff and general messing about.

My advice to MPs, in respect of project costs is: (a) give us the whole truth, but split it up into relevant and understandable elements; (b) include all fees as well as anticipated construction costs; (c) include VAT where relevant (clients and advisers often underestimate this); (d) include an inflation estimate; and (e) include a decent contingency sum, 20 per cent, for example. If the latter is saved, good news. If it is called on, smart to have included it.

Let’s have a dose of honesty, however shocking it might appear in the short term.  

Back of the net

Rave reviews for Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium have paid little attention to the architect. So take a bow project architect Tom Jones and Populous. It has been well worth the wait.


Readers' comments (14)

  • The 2016 EU referendum was for approval only and has no legal standing (ie it was a plebiscite or opinion poll), which is why the legislature allowed Gina Miller’s meaningful vote proposal (power checks power). You can not ignore or insult anyone in an opinion poll, and people who hold different opinions to you are not ‘losers’. The 2016 EU referendum simply has no democratic power, unless the result is confirmed by Parliament, which is sovereign. That has clearly not happened because the majority of MPs in Parliament know that Brexit is not in the national interest. This is how our representative democracy works, unlike a direct democracy or dictatorship.

    That Miller’s judicial review was necessary is the truly sinister aspect here, as Mrs May attempted to circumvent Parliament with royal prerogative powers, dubbed Henry VIII powers by the media. These are an antiquated hang over from absolute monarchy (ie dictatorship), which are fortunately easily trumped by Parliamentary sovereignty (or in this case by a judicial review).

    There is a reason why Germany banned referendums in their post-war constitution...because Adolf Hitler used them to gain and consolidate his power, while circumventing the Reichstag. Can anyone see any parallels between Nazi Germany and Brexit Britain?!

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  • The short answer is no, and it is typical of a certain sort of Remainer, especially the weirdos who shelter under the cloak of anonymity, to make this particularly unpleasant and irrelevant link. Nothing more to be said. Over and out.

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  • 'Over but definitely not out', I rather think.
    It was the way in which so many of our politicians surrendered their own beliefs to the simplistic (and frequently self-serving) observation that 'the people have spoken' really emphasises that up to 49.9% (recurring) of the electorate can be consigned to oblivion in the UK 'first post the post' electoral model being blindly copied for a referendum - the outcome of which was to be treated as gospel to 'honour' a party election manifesto to 'respect' 'the people'. Despite the glaring difference that commonsense demands that by law general elections have to be re-run at regular intervals, whereas this referendum was about a long-term change in the direction of the UK with wide ranging but badly explained (let alone understood) implications for us all .

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  • The truth appears to hurt a certain type of leaver, who seem to think that they have ‘won’ something. I am afraid that this is not a football match, that fades into memory on Monday morning, but a momentous decision that will reverberate down the generations. As the German documentary filmmaker said ‘The European Union is the biggest peace project ever attempted by humanity’. With a country effectively divided down the middle we face the real prospect of civil war, if the sovereignty of Parliament is not honoured, at this the eleventh hour. Returning to the original topic of this article, this would entail two new Parliament buildings. One for Leavers and one for Remainers, and a new land border to delineate the two new ‘kingdoms’. The new anthem for Leavers could be ‘Dixie’. Never underestimate the Remainers, unlike Number Six, I am not a prisoner, I am a free man!

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