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Parliamentarians are ill equipped to tackle Parliament’s retrofit

Paul Finch

Politicians are struggling to figure out a strategy for the Palace of Westminster’s refurbishment, hampered by a lack of expertise, writes Paul Finch

Our leaders at Westminster seem incapable of making a decision about what is going to happen as a result of the multibillion-pound retrofit of the Palace of Westminster.

Just before Christmas, the Westminster authorities admitted they had not even considered using Portcullis House, the Hopkins landmark parliamentary building across the street from Big Ben, as a potential Commons chamber. As Michael Hopkins has pointed out, it would be perfectly possible to fit the chamber into the Portcullis lobby. Security arrangements are already in place because of its existing use by MPs. It has appropriate gravitas as a building. So what is the problem? It appears that it is a lack of imagination on the part of the relevant house committee.

The saga of this retrofit is beginning to resemble Angus Wilson’s novel, The Old Men at the Zoo, where the aims and motives of all involved in the project have agendas that are tangential to the real task at hand. You might describe what is going on in terms of that warning to those who confuse strategy with tactics: ‘As we lost sight of our objectives, we redoubled our efforts’.

In truth, there is more than one problem associated with this project. If it were a simple case of refurbishing existing fabric, then no doubt it could be undertaken in a way that would allow the Commons or the Lords to remain in situ for at least part of the time that the construction work is being undertaken. Unfortunately, the scale of the problem means that, whatever hare-brained schemes may have been proposed for an in-situ solution, the only way to do what is necessary is to decant everyone.

Unfortunately, the track record of politicians in respect of architectural matters is a poor one

But there is another problem, of a sort familiar to facilities directors the world over: if you are revamping your work premises, on what basis should you be revising and improving, rather than simply replacing the existing? That of course raises the question of just how many MPs, and more particularly ‘peers’, we should be planning for. The answer is a lot fewer, especially in respect of the bloated unelected gaggle of Establishment has-beens that constitutes the House of Lords.

Reform of that nightmare body, and implementation of Commons boundary changes to give voters something like equality of representation, should be undertaken while we have the chance, thereby informing the brief for the design team that will carry out the Palace of Westminster work. This combination of politics, constitution and architecture is what made Barry and Pugin’s work so powerful, perfectly representing (as critic Jeremy Melvin has pointed out) the relationship between Crown, Lords and Commons via its plan form.

Cleopatra's needle edit

Cleopatra’s needle edit

All has changed. Ironically, unanticipated devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales transformed the nature and function of Portcullis House during the course of construction; when it was completed I suggested that it might be adapted to make an excellent home for a revised House of Lords. It was obvious from its generous volume that it could accommodate, then as now, more than the hustle and bustle of ordinary MPs and visitors going about their business.

Perhaps it is not too late for the Hopkins proposition to be reconsidered, provided the House authorities are prepared to admit they were wrong to overlook it in the first place. Unfortunately, the track record of politicians in respect of architectural matters is a poor one, and these days who can they turn to for advice? No Royal Fine Art Commission, no CABE, a general distrust of professional institutions (‘experts’). The result is a mess. Architectural analysis necessary. Time for Action This Day.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Perhaps the Health and Safety executive could sort it out by condemning the building's facilities as a fire and health risk.

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  • By the way the image is from an 1878 etching of Cleopatra's Needle, which at one stage was planned to be located at the Palace of Westminster, rather than the anonymous riverside spot which is now its home.

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