Last month cascading water from a burst pipe forced MPs to temporarily suspend their sitting in the Commons. The crumbling state of the Palace of Westminster has been affectionately joked about for some time. Last year there was briefly a social media account dedicated to photos of the decaying building, accompanied by acerbic captions, before it was shut down for security reasons. When I was there, I experienced my fair share of flooded toilets, rotting floorboards, and infestations. Scaffolding seemingly appeared overnight, obscuring windows and sometimes doors. A 2015 BBC documentary highlighted miles upon miles of tangled cabling and a rabbit warren of ventilation shafts and forgotten cavities that create the perfect conditions to fan flames. A team, checking for fires, must permanently patrol the estate.
Notre-Dame was in a similar desperate need of restoration and this week’s terrible events will direct attention to the state of the Palace of Westminster.
Work to restore Parliament arguably began in 2000, when engineers were commissioned to examine the condition of the building. They concluded significant repair and renovation would be needed within five to ten years. In 2016 a joint committee, set up to oversee – by this point critical – repairs, published a report which warned the Palace ‘faces an impending crisis which we cannot responsibly ignore’. Each year the risk that incremental problems could make the building uninhabitable was added to by the risk that a catastrophic event – fire started in the electric cabling perhaps – would stop parliament in its tracks. In 2018 MPs voted to move out and let renovation take place uninterrupted. Conservative estimates suggest parliamentarians would need a new home for at least five years, probably longer. Certain MPs and staff are meant to start moving out of their offices this autumn, but it is still unclear where the temporary Commons chamber will be, when the planned work will start and how long it will take. While MPs are still considering how the plan will work practically. Writing for The Times’ Red Box last week, former Minister, Dame Caroline Spelman, argued the project needed a political figurehead akin to the late Dame Tessa Jowell and the 2012 Olympic delivery team. Spelman is said to favour the current Commons leader, Andrea Leadsom, for this role.
The critical work on Parliament comes at a time when satisfaction with MPs is arguably at a historic low. MPs don’t want to be seen to be spending money on their “offices” and security concerns will, rightly, make the project additionally complex. Nonetheless, in the same way Grenfell brought terrible, destructive, attention to the inadequate state of cladding across the country, perhaps the fire of Notre-Dame will cause MPs to focus on finalising Parliament’s much needed restoration plan and make the public a little more sympathetic to the importance of saving the mother of parliaments before it is too late.