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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)

  • Also it would be good to have a well argued case for why:
    - This cramped building is still suitable. (Because it's facilities don't appear fit for the present let alone the future).
    - The chambers are adequate for the number of MP's & Lords. (They can't even seat everyone)
    - Chambers based on opposing factions are better than a radial design.
    - etc.
    Certainly its cost will be well above that quoted, the disruption will be prolonged, and the result - essentialy a restoration undertaken for the sake of nostalgia. Unlike the Olympics which benefited so greatly from it, there has been hardly any design debate about this project. Perhaps it would be better as a hotel?

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  • Yes; Parliament has drifted into a project which so far is all tactics but no strategy. Depressingly familiar.

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  • Yes, new building required, located in the geographical centre of the kingdom, such as Manchester, or possibly Brussels, which would be convenient for the Brexit negotiations over the next decade? Or if we remain, we can be at the very heart of the EU?

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  • Although it’s now over 5 years down the line, without any debate about strategy and only tactical implementation, over the past couple of years the public generally have come to realise significant deficiencies with Parliament and the suitability of the houses for a modern democracy. At the very least modernisation is necessary, but reform might be considered likely and any such modernisation or reform should best be manifest in a physical architectural form. Given the abject lack of strategy isn’t it time architects fully moved to open up and enter this debate? The lack of alternative advocacy appears to lack architectural foresight, leadership and planning. How best might this now be opened up to architectural and strategic discourse?

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  • A group of us proposed that 'Nextminster' should be the subject of the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2016, where all the above would have been raised in a provocative and polemical way. Our submission included designs by Nigel Coates among others, and included town halls, devolved parliaments and of course the future of the Palace of Westminster itself. I suppose we should not have been surprised that the British Council did not even invite us for interview!

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  • Given that there seem to be several questions looming over the basic form of our parliament - the possible abandonment of crude and divisive 'first past the post' democracy for proportional representation (or maybe even something akin to the German system), and the questions of whether Scotland will 'walk' and of how the government of Wales and Northern Ireland might evolve - there's the obvious risk of throwing large quantities of increasingly scarce public funds at something that's not going to be fit for purpose.
    Surely the accommodation of central government functions now demands a high degree of flexibility.

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  • As the narrow result of the 2016 EU referendum (which has no legal standing, and was for approval only) was conveniently interpreted by hard right Tory MP’s as ‘the will of the people’, and is still being portrayed (3 years later) as ‘what the country wants’, have we become a ‘direct democracy’ like Switzerland?!

    We have heard a great deal about the 17.4m people who voted to leave, but the 16.14m people who voted to remain continue to be ignored. However, as we are still a ‘representative democracy’, the tyranny of the (very slim) majority should not prevail, when parliament is sovereign (in spite of Mrs May’s attempt to bypass it with Henry VIII powers only curbed by Gina Miller’s successful judicial review) and must decide what is best for the country.

    Our unwritten constitution remains as the sovereignty of ‘the queen in parliament’, and there is still a glimmer of hope that the parliamentary system might still work (by revoking Article 50). In spite of the complete ineptitude of the executive for the past two years, who triggered Article 50 and then called a snap general election, in which they promptly lost their majority. But to ‘reach out’ in the final 7 days of the process is the height of desperation and cynicism.

    We need a new leader and a new government at the moment, rather than a new parliament building. The right people could probably do it from a Portacabin in Parliament Square.

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  • Obviously ignoring the 17.4 million is ok!

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  • It's no more ok than ignoring the 16.14m 'non-people'. Or the dearth of information on the implications of the referendum. Or the evidence of the illegal creation of misinformation to manipulate the vote.
    No architect worth the title would design anything with that sort of 'brief' - would they?

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  • It's the 17.4 million who are being insulted by a largely Remainer House of Commons (and Speaker). The 16.14 million should be jolly pleased, good losers all.

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