Repair of crumbling British symbol of democracy faces further delay – Reuters

Much debate has taken place over how best to repair the building, but MPs, Lords, parliamentary officials and experts continue to be divided over how best to proceed with the necessary work.

Photo: AP

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Sun 13 Nov 2022, 20:54

Scratch off the iconic sight and the true picture emerges. As the baton passed from Boris Johnson to Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak in 2022, a detailed report has highlighted the billions of pounds needed over decades to undertake urgent repair and restoration work in the Palace of Westminster at the edge of the River Thames, which has been the center of power for over 900 years. A Unesco World Heritage Site and the seat of what is widely known as the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, it is also a popular selfie point for hundreds of thousands of tourists from various vantage points in and around of Westminster Bridge. But take a closer look or walk around its rooms and corridors and you will see different stages of decay and decline.

Few legislative buildings with such living heritage have witnessed so much, for so long and had such influence across the world, as history has unfolded around them over the centuries – and can perhaps none are so in need of repair and restoration. But despite the worries, warnings and reports of the past decades, there is no indication that work will begin soon.

Since 2017, more than 40,000 issues have been reported, including 40 times since 2008 when the palace caught fire. A fire safety team patrols the palace for several years, every hour of every day, because it does not meet modern fire safety standards. Some fear the building is “another Notre Dame”, reminiscent of the fire that engulfed Paris Cathedral on April 15, 2019. Experts believe the structure is deteriorating faster than it can be repaired; some systems and components installed centuries ago are still in use; and maintaining its current state alone costs millions of pounds a week.

Big Ben in the palace complex has been covered in scaffolding in recent years, its restoration work is nearing completion, but the main building is the key challenge: it has a ground plate the size of 16 pitches of football, with 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases, 4.8 km of passageways, four floors and 65 different levels. The oldest building is Westminster Hall, which has been the scene of great moments in British political life, built by William II over 900 years ago when it was considered the largest hall in Europe .

The detailed report published earlier this year reflects the extent of the work needed under two options: undertake repairs while work on both houses of parliament continues inside the palace, or repair it after it has been gutted and moved the houses and work of parliament elsewhere (called ‘full settling’). His estimate suggests a huge difference in the costs and time required under the two options: £22billion and 76 years in the first, and a cost of between £7billion and £13billion over one. period of 12 to 20 years in the second. both estimates without taking inflation into account.

Much debate has taken place over how best to repair the building, but MPs, Lords, parliamentary officials and experts continue to be divided over how best to proceed with the necessary work. Two bodies were formed in 2020 to carry out repair and restoration, but they were abolished by parliamentary authorities and a new approach, mandate and governance structure were proposed this year, adding to more indecision. and delay.

Uncertainty over when and how work will begin has drawn growing criticism from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and MPs. Labor MP Chris Bryant said abolishing the two bodies “looks like silly political interference, just like in the 19th century. We are wasting money soundly and putting a Unesco site at risk”, while that Meg Hillier, president of the PAC, says the authorities had set things straight: “(They) unilaterally took this massive and critical project of enormous national, historical, cultural and political significance back to the drawing board; overturning the decisions of both Houses, with no justification for frustrating the plan that was underway – albeit torturously slow – and no assurance that they can actually deliver the work they now envision. in nobody’s book.

Hillier notes that Parliament is literally collapsing around the thousands of people who work there and the estimated million who, in better times, visit each year, posing a very real health and safety risk in its current state. The latest PAC report not only calls progress unacceptably slow, but the likely start date for major works has been pushed back by several years due to repeated attempts to review the basis of the program. Although some urgent works may be undertaken earlier, there is still no clear indication as to when major works may begin.

Like many other British structures, the palace has a long history. Besides evolving ideas of democracy since the days of Magna Carta, it has overseen industrial and other revolutions, the high tide of the British Empire, world wars, decolonization and much more. In recent times, it has been burned down (1834), bombed (1941) and faced a terrorist attack (2017), in addition to other challenges. It contains a fascinating mix of old and modern buildings and houses a rare collection of furniture, archives and works of art, including a large mural by William Rothenstein (1872-1945) depicting a defining moment that threw the bases of British influence in India. : First British diplomatic representative, Thomas Roe (1581-1644), at the court of Mughal Emperor Jahangir in Ajmer in 1616 (Roe was sent to India by King James I in 1614 to establish diplomatic relations with the Mughal Empire ).

Winston Churchill, one of the legendary parliamentarians, was clear about the worldwide symbolism of the palace. When the House of Commons was gutted during the Blitz in May 1941, he said, “It’s the citadel of freedom; it is the foundation of our laws; his traditions and privileges are as alive today as when he broke the arbitrary power of the Crown. The House has shown itself capable of facing the possibility of national destruction with classic coolness. He can change governments and has changed them by the heat of passion. He can sustain the government in long unfavorable and disappointing struggles for many dark and gray months and even years until the sun rises again… We shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us.

The desperation and dismay at the uncertainty is clear in the PAC report, when it says that “nearly 200 years ago a fire destroyed part of this building – we don’t want it need another catastrophic incident to finally galvanize action and focus minds”.

– The author is a seasoned journalist based in London

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