Plans to revamp Parliament are turning into a PR disaster

Parliamentary Business: Excluding the public from the consultation is utterly bizarre given that they’ll be funding the job

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MPs have been privately moaning about the potential cost of revamping the Houses of Parliament since a consortium led by Deloitte Real Estate produced a doorstopper of a report in June into what is needed to rid the place of asbestos, fix several thousand windows and get it up to modern safety standards (to name but three of the Palace of Westminster’s multitude of problems).

The price tag is estimated to be about £7.1bn over three decades, if politicians decide to remain at the palace for a few years while engineering and construction experts undertake these repairs. If they do move out, the cost is more likely to be about £3.5bn over six years, Deloitte reckons.

I’ve written before about how this hideously complicated project, which will almost certainly result in part of the River Thames being closed off to allow boats to carry materials and power generators to dry docks by Parliament’s terrace, might not appeal to the mighty engineering firms needed to undertake the job. The report, they moan, is not detailed enough: they will have to undertake their own costly due diligence of what could be creaky foundations, and the risks inherent in the project mean that the cost could easily be far higher than anticipated.

There is, for example, at least a 75 per cent chance of a fire should MPs and peers decline to move to a temporary chamber during the work. This is no small matter: in 1789, 14 architects, including the Scottish neoclassicist Robert Adam, warned that the palace could be destroyed by fire. And so it came to pass … in 1834 a blaze reduced all but Westminster Hall and the Jewel Tower to rubble. The rebuilding work took three decades.

Anyway, I thought many large engineering groups would snub bids, fearing a costly white elephant, but I was wrong. Instead, I’m hearing of plenty of engineers that are still keen on making formal bids to run the project, because the Palace of Westminster is still a pretty striking landmark to have on the CV.

However, there is plenty more to worry about. A cross-party committee of MPs and peers charged with deciding how the revamp should proceed met for the first time this month. I’m told parliamentary officials handed over documents detailing how politicians and interested stakeholders would be consulted over the plans. (These stakeholders presumably included groups representing the disabled, who so struggle to move around the palace.)

But several members of the committee were stunned to find that the public were not included on this consultation list, which is utterly bizarre and wrong given that this job will be funded by the taxpayer. As much as anything else, this is a PR disaster at a time when many people are still not seeing their wages keep pace with the cost of living.

It is believed that Neil Gray, the new SNP MP for Airdrie and Shotts, was so irritated that he has tabled a motion demanding a public consultation, as is best practice on major projects. Mr Gray declined to confirm this, but others did. “The whole approach is wrong,” fumes a source close to the plans. A spokeswoman for the restoration and renewal programme, as it is known, also declined to comment.

Moreover, there are plenty of MPs and peers who will fight against moving out of the palace, arguing that debating and passing legislation there is fundamental to our democracy. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the traditionalist Conservative, and Chris Grayling are two committee members who are thought to be against even a temporary absence. Others are keen for the cheapest, quickest revamp.

This committee has very little time – only until spring, in fact – to decide how it wants to proceed. Yet already there are clear problems with the approach and a stark range of views on what should happen next. On top of that, there’s the potential logistical nightmare of overruns on a separate programme of repairs for MPs’ neighbouring, and ageing, office buildings.

Officials have planned for work to begin by the second quarter of 2020, but few politicians and engineers I have spoken to think this is an achievable timescale. The most polite will say the date is a “very challenging” one to hit, but that is as optimistic as they get.

For what it’s worth, I want to see the palace saved because it is a potent symbol of democracy, not just in this country but around the world. If this project isn’t reorganised quickly, I fear that those politicians who have advocated moving out permanently, such as the former shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna, will have an unassailable case.

Farron’s Labour ‘land grab’ lacks a sound foundation

The Liberal Democrats do like to be beside the seaside. Despite their election disaster, they have been in good cheer at their conference in Bournemouth.

Their new leader, Tim Farron, has made an “unashamed land grab” on a Labour Party that has shifted further to the left under Jeremy Corbyn. His first move was to show that the Lib Dems are pro-business, offering budding entrepreneurs a £2,600 start-up grant.

It’s a good policy, but it touches on the only business ground Mr Corbyn occupies: he is anti-City, not anti-small business owners.