The Palace of Westminster
House of Cards
The mounting case for MPs to abandon Westminster
OBSERVE the Palace of Westminster on a rainy night, and you may see lights strangely flickering in its 1,100 rooms. Leaks not caught by buckets interfere with mice-gnawed cables crammed into Victorian holes. But the damp and drips have one advantage: they temporarily curb the risk of fires in the many bits of this creaking, neo-Gothic edifice that are not protected by sprinklers.
The palace is in a bad way. In a speech on March 2nd John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, argued that it is decaying faster than it is being repaired. He claimed that fixing Parliament could cost some 3 billion. It came to only about a third more to build a new terminal at Heathrow Airport.
The efficient option would be for MPs to move somewhere else while workers revamp the palace, yanking out thickets of wiring and replacing the lot, for example. But politicians do not warm to the prospect of being far from government departments, television studios and a decent plate of spaghetti alle vongole. Andrew Griffiths, a Conservative MP, shudders at the thought of “moving to an office block in Slough for five or ten years“.
Parliament is expected to vote on the matter not long after the general election. It may consider leaving for good. Mr Bercow warned that if the palace is not repaired in the next decade, legislators will have to “abandon this site and look elsewhere“. But that might not be such a bad thing. The palace is poorly suited to its purpose: no amount of repairs will make the House of Commons chamber big enough to let all MPs sit down, for example. Nor will they remove the fusty atmosphere of the place—more mid-market country hotel than hub of modern democracy.
It is not clear where Parliament would go. The big northern cities have been touted (Andrew Adonis, a Labour peer, has suggested moving the Lords to Salford Quays, outside Manchester). Even more far-fetched proposals include a purpose-built capital like Brasilia or Washington, or a roving legislature. Michael Fabricant has invited fellow MPs to use the cathedral in his seat of Lichfield in Staffordshire—though he warns that legislative sessions would have to fit around services.
And what to do with Westminster? Generation Rent, a group campaigning for tenants'rights, has a bright idea. It has commissioned plans to turn the palace into 364 affordable flats, complete with swimming pool and library. But most assume it should become a museum. As Hugo Summerson, a former Tory MP, sniffed in 1991: “We need a brand-new facility, and we should leave this place to the Americans and the Japanese.“