Camping out?

June 2015: scaffolding on the Houses of Parliament Image copyright PA
Image caption What will parliamentarians do when the Palace is being repaired?

Sometime in the next month, MPs and peers will discover whether they're going to have to leave their historic home and allow the builders in, to save it from disaster.

A joint committee of MPs and peers have been working on how best to implement what is carefully described as the "Restoration and Renewal" of the Victorian Palace of Westminster. The roofs leak, the windows leak, the members' cloakroom was flooded this week, there's asbestos, crumbling stonework, neolithic wiring, and enough fire hazards to pose a serious risk of what has been briefed to MPs as a "catastrophic event."

The buzz in Westminster is that the Joint Committee will recommend a "total decant" from the Victorian section of the Parliamentary estate, for five or more years, probably starting in 2021, to allow the rebuilding to take place.

It's no longer tenable to make running repairs during the long summer recess, and it is probably neither practical nor safe to try to close off one end of the building, and renovate in sections. Many parliamentarians had clung to the idea that they could keep one of the debating chambers open, and have the Commons meet there, while peers moved elsewhere.

That option now seems to be unworkable. The estimated cost is already hovering in the £billions - and making elaborate efforts to conduct the work around in-situ MPs and peers would push that figure ever higher.

The favoured solution, much canvassed around Parliament, is to take over neighbouring Richmond House, home of the Department of Health, and put up temporary debating chambers there, and relocate those MPs and peers with offices in the Victorian palace….

It will be a wrench for some, and their anguish will doubtless dominate the debate about R&R. But there is another aspect: should the programme seek to do more than give Westminster watertight windows and functional wiring?

This week, the parliamentary think tank, the Hansard Society held a discussion to highlight the opportunities to do much more. The restoration programme could make Parliament much more accessible to the public, both online and in person, and restructure the building to foster a more participatory and transparent democracy.

The marginal cost of doing so, in the context of a multi-billion pound project, would not be vast - and it is also worth noting that whether Parliament remained there or not, the place would have to be restored; it's one of the four or five most recognisable buildings on the planet, and a World Heritage site.

No-one is going to let it burn down or slide into the Thames.

What was discussed?

The ideas flew thick and fast, from panellists Geoff Mulgan of NESTA, Matthew Flinders from Sheffield University and Deborah Shaw, Head of Creative Programming and Interpretation at Historic Royal Palaces: attach a museum of democracy to a living parliament; create a more accessible entrance, perhaps from a new complex in the centre of Parliament Square, through which the public could access the building; build a new and bigger venue for Westminster Hall debates, perhaps with a non-confrontational horse-shoe layout; roof over some of the internal courtyards to create new spaces for events open to the public, and, of course, build in the infrastructure to allow Parliament to use 21st Century technology in its work, and enhance public access.

Deborah Shaw was particularly interesting on the opportunity to bring in artists to stage events like the poppy display at the Tower of London - events that captivated the public and increased public understanding of politics. (Incidentally, she's currently working on a event to evoke the destroyed Whitehall Palace, just up the road.)

But many parliamentarians are instinctively wary. The Conservative Steve Brine, hardly a crusty old lag, feared that the process could end up with MPs being forces into "some ghastly glass horse-shoe".

Others suspect that the simple fact of moving out of their historic chamber, and perhaps having to adapt to electronic voting, if their temporary home cannot accommodate their traditional voting lobbies, could produce a culture change, over five or more years. It would then be very hard to go back to the old ways, on their return.

The new buildings for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly were designed to express a constitutional change - the challenge of re-housing an ancient institution is rather different. But Churchill's dictum that we shape our buildings and then they shape us, could well play out when the new Westminster emerges from behind the scaffolding.