MPs and peers are set to move from the Gothic majesty of the Palace of Westminster to a conference centre that is derided as one of London’s ugliest buildings, when the Houses of Parliament undergo essential renovation.
The Independent on Sunday has learnt that the coalition quietly shelved the idea of including the Queen Elizabeth II centre in a “for sale” list after ministers were told it was a “no-brainer” for it to become Parliament’s temporary home when the palace is refurbished. The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, recently warned that the palace, which is slowly sinking into the river Thames, will have to be permanently vacated within 20 years unless extensive work starts soon.
An investigation has revealed:
* a post-election report will confirm that MPs and peers must move out while renovation work takes place;
* the cost has probably been underestimated by around £1bn;
* Parliament could have to close for longer than the five years mooted;
* cleaning up the courtyards alone will cost “tens of millions” of pounds and take six years.
Accountants Deloitte, architects HOK and engineers Aecom will soon publish a Parliament-commissioned report on the best option for organising the repair works when they start in around 2020.
A source close to the team said that the renovation would be “pretty comprehensive” so that either all of Parliament would have to be relocated, or the move could be divided so that MPs or peers decamp in turns. It is possible that one-term MPs might never get to speak from the Commons’ green benches.
One option was to undertake repairs around politicians as they worked, but it is understood that this will be ruled out, given the delicate nature of restoring the World Heritage Site. Among the challenges is a tunnel running underneath Parliament that has become hard to access because of technology installed over the years, from telegraph equipment to broadband wiring.
There had been speculation that Parliament could move temporarily to the North. However, it is understood that parliamentary commissioners, who include Mr Bercow, believe that the QEII centre is the most sensible option as, at 200m from the palace, it would cause the least disruption.
While the refurbishment is taking place, MPs would not have to leave their offices in Portcullis House, or the Norman Shaw buildings next to Parliament. Those involved in the decision also point out that MPs need to be close to central departmental offices, such as those in Whitehall, and Downing Street.
The QEII is owned by the Communities department. It could be configured to ape the confrontational arrangement of government and opposition benches, and has enough space to accommodate the most crowded of Parliamentary debates. A source said Communities ministers were told about three years ago that the QEII – which made a list of Daily Telegraph readers’ most hated London buildings – was the overwhelming favourite place for the relocation.
A former minister said: “A request was made for the QEII Centre to not be put on the sale list until a decision is made on decamping Parliament during the rebuild.”
Labour might try to sell the QEII Centre for around £25m if it wins the election, but a senior party source insisted that this would not stand in the way of renting the venue during the refurbishment period.
Firms which have considered bidding for the renovation work say suggestions it would cost about £3bn may be an underestimate. A construction industry source said: “They don’t know what’s around or underneath Parliament, they don’t know what they’re going to find. We reckon it could cost 25 to 50 per cent more than the £3bn mentioned.”
Also, it appears likely that the restoration will take longer than the five years mooted. Cleaning up the seven courtyards alone could take six years, and cost tens of millions of pounds. This could be undertaken as a separate contract, but a source said it would make sense for it to be part of the broader reconstruction work.
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