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The Palace of Westminster retrofit is shrouded in secrecy

Paul Finch
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A gigantic public spending commitment is being pushed through with little or no public scrutiny, says Paul Finch

This week’s general election has, of course, been preceded by the usual slanging matches, and multiple examples of La Rochefoucauld’s maxim that ‘Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue’.

As is inevitable, the political outcome of the election will have architectural consequences: the nature of housing development, the implications of transport decisions and, underlying everything, the changes in design and construction that will take place as a result of the overarching environmental agenda.

There is one certainty in all this: that the tribunes of the people will continue to work shrouded in secrecy on the biggest retrofit project in Europe: the transformation of the Palace of Westminster into a governmental complex fit for the 21st century. For, while Parliamentarians were unable or unwilling to give clear direction on the most important political issues of their lifetime, membership of the EU, they were ready, willing and able to sign up to a multi-billion pound project which is all about them.

An embarrassing scenario has been made far worse, in an almost surreal way, by the furtive and almost dishonest way in which Portcullis House, the only piece of contemporary architecture which forms part of the Parliamentary estate, has been declared up for grabs, with no discussion, either in the Commons, or in public.

Secretive decisions to fill in water elements and turn the entire ground floor into a secondary version of Westminster Hall is on a par with the recent bombshell announcement that the Grade II*-listed Richmond House would be gutted to make way for a replica House of Commons chamber.

The entirely non-transparent process by which these decisions have been made are replicated by the way government has muscled in to wipe out the normal processes which should have dealt with the planning application for the holocaust memorial project next to the House of Lords in Victoria Gardens.

It used to be a joke, because the concept had been discredited, that ‘the man in Whitehall knows best’. Unfortunately, the idea is not only alive and well, but positively blooming. It is almost as though the distractions and feebleness of the Westminster class, in respect of Brexit, has promoted an all-knowing certainty that decisions behind closed doors about a gigantic public spending commitment are best achieved with little or no public scrutiny.

The cost of the Palace of Westminster project is significantly greater than the anticipated cost of Crossrail 2

Admittedly the cost of the Palace of Westminster project is nothing like as big as HS2, but it is certainly significantly greater than the anticipated cost of Crossrail 2. I would much prefer a commitment to the latter to vast expenditure on a Parliamentary estate which is, for the 21st century, an anomaly.

The critic and historian Jeremy Melvin has noted that the Charles Barry Palace of Westminster plan is a description of the British constitution in the way that the spatial relationship between Crown, MPs and Lords is set out. That relationship, so clear at the time when Barry and Pugin’s great work was being delivered, is now anything but, largely as a result of devolution and the destruction of the hereditary basis of the House of Lords.

This is why the attitude to Portcullis House is so peculiar. Michael Hopkins has noted that you could fit the Commons chamber into it; many years ago I suggested that it would make a wonderful chamber for a reformed House of Lords. These matters should have been discussed openly as part of a creative initiative to ensure that the Mother of Parliaments does not wither on the vine.

Self-important Parliamentary worthies may believe that simply restoring the existing will be a job well done. They are missing the point. Let’s hope the election will prompt some fresh, and refreshing, thinking.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Maybe it's not so much shrouded in secrecy as in lazy-minded ignorance born of the complacent assumption of historic privilege - and, of course, on prioritising the cost above all other demands on the public purse.

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