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Repairing the Houses of Parliament will cost so much that no one dares put a figure on it

29 January 2021

The construction industry is notoriously inexact, and any project is filled with uncertainty. What mysterious ruins will be found digging for the foundations? What critical components will not be delivered on time? Who’s even going to turn up on site today? As a casual viewer of Grand Designs will tell you, budgets and schedules are hopelessly inexact, and the inability to make construction more efficient and reliable has held the industry back for a long time. But when Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee, recently suggested to Building that the cost of refurbishing the Houses of Parliament would be ‘at least’ £12 billion, three times the official estimate of £4 billion, even the most cynical ears should have pricked up. What on earth could possibly justify a cost of that magnitude?

To help put this into perspective, when the Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood was completed in 2003, its construction process was considered to have been such a fiasco that the Fraser Inquiry was held. What had occurred such that the original budget of £50 million had ended up costing the taxpayer more than £400 million? This was widely thought a scandal, and the errors of inexperienced clients and panglossian contractors, not to mention the disruption of the architect and main client’s sudden deaths, were quite the embarrassment.

Before work has commenced in Westminster, where do we expect that money to be going? The complex as a whole contains buildings that were built nine centuries ago, although the majority was erected in the building programme from 1840–70. Since that time, within and without, there have been endless partial refurbishments and repairs, from the damage sustained in the Second World War to a constant process of making good and retouching. The Pugin decorations, key to the visual image of the parliament, are artworks in and of themselves and require specialist conservation. The general fabric of the building is old and decrepit, stonework is spalling and crumbling, which itself requires particular and expensive craftsmanship to repair, while the Thames is constantly trying to break through the foundations. But beyond this, the mechanical systems of the building are stretched way beyond limits. Decades of upgraded electrical circuits, IT infrastructure, heating, cooling, ventilation, fire safety and of course security mean that, understood as a system, the Houses of Parliament are constantly on the verge of collapse, conflagration, or both.

It may well be a red herring to think of this project as being comparable to other buildings, rather, perhaps a large infrastructure project such as Crossrail (£19bn and counting) is a better comparison. But Crossrail has involved digging massive tunnels directly underneath central London, and it’s right to ask what could possibly be making up these sums for just one large building.

One major part of the process is emptying out the Palace of Westminster, which means that the MPs and all their staff will have to occupy other premises temporarily. Those sites will need to be upgraded to be made fully secure and functional for the peculiar business of parliament, which is a massive undertaking. The most recent proposal for this was to convert various nearby buildings including a new temporary House of Commons in Richmond House on Whitehall, an interesting neo-Tudor postmodern building by William Whitfield, a proposal that the Twentieth Century Society and others campaigned against. Even this part of the process was potentially a £1bn project, while other suggestions included relocating parliament out of London entirely for the duration.

In this context, £12 billion represents a colossal builder’s sucking of teeth, as the myriad variables involved, from the presence of asbestos to precise IT requirements decades from now, have barely begun to be listed, let alone quantified, and that’s before we even get near thinking about fluctuating building costs in the wake of Brexit and Covid. Indeed, a week after Hillier’s admission, Building reported that the project is years away from having anything like a firm set of costs, and many reams of reports will be needed before anything other than a vague guess can be hazarded. But in construction, provisional sums tend to resolve upwards, and it all begins to force the question on the country as a whole, of whether or not this is all worth it?

The great value, but also potential liability, of a parliament building is that it plays such a fundamental representational role for the nation. In smoother times this normally works through metaphors of order, justice, morality and so forth, and architecturally this can range from the borrowed gravitas of neoclassicism, such as the US Capitol, to the more recent metaphoric transparency of the rebuilt Reichstag or poetic modernism of the Scottish Parliament. In London, Charles Barry and Pugin’s Gothic revival played, at the time, a role of suggesting the strong Christian virtue of this then-most powerful of nations, an organic social form for the first industrialised nation. More recently this meaning has transmuted into something to do with ‘heritage’, as the view of the House of Parliament from Westminster bridge, with accompanying Routemaster bus, has become such an important part of the global image of the UK as a tourist destination, its glories in the past.

In more negative times, as recently demonstrated with the storming of the Capitol, the representational role of a parliament is as a lightning rod of discontent – the heart of the problem, so to speak – and the prominence of the parliament is that of a palace set against the people. Faced with this potentially vast taxpayer’s bill, it’s hard not to conclude, in the case of the UK, that parliament represents something deeper about the national psyche. Could it be that our famous system of muddling through, of tinkering rather than systematising, our parsimonious inability to make hay when the sun shines, has led to this predicament? After decades of its custodians refusing to face the music, it is easy to imagine parliament as an old mansion collecting rain in buckets placed all around, and the representatives of the people as a host of Miss Havershams.