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A Palace fit for... demolition?

12:00am | & News

Britain's Parliament is in a precarious state, showing the strain, beginning to crumble and in danger of collapse. Not the political institution, but the buildings which house it!

The House of Commons and the House of Lords are both found in the Palace of Westminster, a suitably imposing structure on the northern bank of the River Thames in the City of Westminster, at the very heart of London.

But according to a new report, the historic and Grade I listed building is in a bad way and desperately in need of a major ground-up restorations estimated at a whopping £4 billion. A Senior Parliamentary Committee was established some time ago to assess the true state of the home to Britain's MP, Peers and thousands of researchers, support staff and other workers. Its findings have just been released and are not good.

Essentially the report suggests that if the building did not have the protection of its Grade I status the most realistic option would be to knock it down and start again. It found the Palace of Westminster to be riddled with asbestos, rotting and crumbling stonework, obsolete and inadequate plumbing, ageing electrics, a dilapidated central heating system, and creeping damp.

The building has also struggled to keep pace with changing technology, so that wiring for phones and computer systems, gradually introduced and updated over previous decades, is now chaotic, jumbled and baffling. The report's authors admit that in many cases no-one knows what some of the wires are for or where they go!

The problems are not just inside the building, but outside too, where air pollution from London's increasing traffic is causing parts of the stonework to crumble away, making the prospect of falling masonry an ever-present danger. MPs have long complained about the poor state of what is their main workplace. Overcrowding is another issue, with the buildings never designed to house the current 650 MPs and their staff.

The committee's recommendation is a comprehensive renovation scheme for the Palace of Westminster to repair the damage, replace obsolete systems and services and adapt the buildings to incorporate 21st century technology. It says the most effective way to get the job done is for the Palace to be vacated and empty for up to six years while the work is completed.

In other words, the MPs, the Lords and all their staff would have to move to alternative premises while Britain's historic Houses of Parliament undergo intensive care in the hope of a full recovery. The report suggests that MPs could be temporarily relocated to the Department of Health's HQ and the Lords to the QEII Conference Centre, both buildings located just a short walk away.

It would also mean temporary facilities being set up to host the national debates which currently take place in the Commons and the Lords. The other option would be to do the work in phases, tacking one section of the palace at a time, but that could take far longer and cost much more.

The committee's report will be presented to Parliament and both Houses would need to vote to approve their temporary relocation – the first since 1941 when the cause was the Second World War. If it does go ahead, the committee recommends the work begins by 2020, allowing enough time to plan for the move, but before the buildings can deteriorate further.

The current Palace of Westminster was built between 1840 and 1870 after the Old Palace, formerly on the same site and dating from the Middle Ages, was destroyed by fire. A competition was held to choose the design of the new Palace, won by architect Charles Barry whose design was in the Gothic Revival style popular in the Victorian era. He never lived to see his masterpiece completed, dying from a heart attack in 1860.

The Palace covers an area of eight acres, partly reclaimed from the River Thames, and has more than 1,100 rooms organised around a series of courtyards. Its construction suffered from a series of delay and ran considerably over budget, something which MPs will be hoping not to repeat with its restoration.


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