Question for Short Debate
My Lords, shortly before the Summer Recess, and almost unnoticed, UNESCO announced its intention to put the Palace of Westminster on its danger list of world heritage sites. It was not referring to the urgent need to repair and restore the fabric of this building. It was alarmed by the increasing number of high-rise tower blocks being built and planned along the South Bank. UNESCO reminded us that Parliament’s historic setting on the Thames was recognised throughout the world as the home of British democracy; that the Houses of Parliament are a unique and distinctive part of London’s skyline; and that this place, along with Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s, was of such “outstanding universal value”—those are UNESCO’s words, not mine—that its importance transcended national boundaries.
Those of us who work here tend to take that for granted and we assume too easily that the universal affection for this place, if not for its politicians, will protect it. UNESCO’s glowing description encourages us to believe that to be true—but it is a false assumption. UNESCO has now sounded the alarm. English Heritage, Westminster City Council and other cultural bodies have registered their dismay at the dangers posed by the loosely controlled planning laws which allow the South Bank to become London’s second-biggest building site, which can no longer be ignored. The growing number of tower blocks being planned for the other bank jeopardise the status and integrity of this Westminster site on which this palace and our Parliament stand.
Visitors who flock here from all parts of the world have no idea what is happening and I believe that many people in this country are none the wiser either. Since April, 127,000 visitors have paid to be shown around—but, of course, the total of constituency and other groups is far greater in number than that. There is affection for and interest in this place at home and abroad. A recent survey ranked the Houses of Parliament fourth out of 80 attractions in terms of the enjoyment that people get from coming here. Yet we now face the prospect of being delisted as a fully protected part of our national and world heritage.
If the redevelopment of the South Bank continues at its present rate, this ancient seat of government will be diminished. The Government have the power to prevent it but, unfortunately, have refused to use their authority. If this continues, we face the prospect of a wall of high-rise, high-density tower blocks stretching in a jagged line from Waterloo to Vauxhall. If that is allowed, it would ruin the dominant setting that this place has enjoyed for centuries on this stretch of the river.
Waterloo nearby is identified by Lambeth Council as a “major development opportunity”. The Mayor of London agrees. Noble Lords have only to look at the architects’ illustrations for the redevelopment of the Shell site and the adjacent Elizabeth House project to realise the enormous size and scale of what is planned. Here I have two sets of architects’ sketches which show the planned development along the South Bank. Would it not be helpful if we were to be made more aware of what is proposed by developers there? Would it not also be helpful to us all if our Lord Speaker were kind enough to arrange an exhibition which graphically explains the proposed development on the South Bank and at the same time provide us with an update on the state of the parliamentary fabric, about which many of us know very little?
I am afraid that we are approaching the point of no return. So far, the Government have paid lip service to our heritage and have let the building boom rip. I understand that the Tower of London was lucky to avoid a similar danger notice. If this place is confronted by citadels of glass, steel and concrete on the other side, UNESCO has no choice but to tell the world that we are failing to meet our obligations. It would be a shameful blow to this country’s reputation, a dereliction of the Government’s responsibilities and a betrayal of future generations. Nothing like this has happened in continental Europe and it must not be allowed to happen here.
The more that I look at this, the more amazed I become. Here we are, cherished throughout the world but at the mercy of local councils and developers who enjoy the Government’s wholehearted support. What does UNESCO want? It wants the Government to strengthen the planning laws and create buffer zones between the high-rise development to protect this Westminster setting. Mr Eric Pickles, the local government Secretary, sees no harm in building a new, eight-tower cluster around the existing Shell building across the river—one of them 37 storeys high. Boris Johnson also gave his blessing. It is a far cry from when he defended Westminster’s heritage before he became Mayor of London. He changed his tune when he was elected; he should do so again before he resumes his parliamentary career.
In June, when I heard of UNESCO’s intention to put Westminster on the danger list, I sought an emergency debate, but I was unsuccessful. This Motion has been on the Order Paper since June. A week later, in early June but only after intense diplomatic pressure, UNESCO decided to give the Government another chance. It set a new deadline of 1 February, only nine weeks away, for the Government to respond to its warning. It will then review the situation at its next annual session in Bonn in June. So there is little time left and the omens are not good.
In their submission to UNESCO last year, the Government opposed the need for tighter planning controls on the grounds that they would not suit London’s “metropolitan character”—which I take to mean that it would hinder foreign investment. The Government also said that it would “unreasonably limit” London’s development, which I take to mean that it would restrict the height and density of the massive developments that attract overseas investors. The borough councils on the south bank are willing participants in the building frenzy, which is the biggest, I understand, for 300 years. The councils were supposed to discuss the new framework for major projects on their side of the river that affect this place; but they have not met for a year because, I am told, there is no prospect of them agreeing anything.
As your Lordships know, these uncertainties arise at a time when we face enormous upheaval in this building. The first stage has begun of the programme to restore and renew the Palace of Westminster as a legislature fit for the 21st century and beyond. Independent consultants have been commissioned to present three options of how best to proceed after the election. The next Parliament will choose its preferred option in 2016 and work is envisaged to start after 2020. The information I have got is from the BBC, which tells us that the cost of the entire programme has risen to an estimated £3 billion—£3,000 million—and probably more. Nobody knows for sure, because we do not know the cost of the options. The House of Commons had a brief debate on this issue on 11 November. As we know, this House is equally involved but we have not yet had a similar opportunity. I hope that pretty soon we will get one.
The future of the Palace of Westminster is in the melting pot. Tonight I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that the Government will preserve Westminster’s status as a world heritage site. I ask him: will the Government review the planning laws that endanger it? Will the Minister convey to the Government my feelings, which I think are the feelings of many of your Lordships, about the need to take urgent action now and to make it clear at the highest level that, while foreign investment is welcome, our heritage is not for sale?
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow that passionate speech by the noble Baroness, and I am very grateful to her for introducing this debate. There is a huge issue about our continuation as a world heritage site but also, as she referred to at the end of her speech, about us continuing in any state at all right now. We face some desperate problems, and there are some real decisions to be made in this place about the future of this House. Perhaps I could spend just a couple of minutes, before other speakers venture, on putting this in its historical context.
This is, of course, not the first time that we have faced a real problem here, because 180 years ago these great Houses of Parliament were in a desperate state. Parliament was said to be vile and filled with rats and river smells; indeed, it was said to be a second edition of the black hole of Calcutta. It was full of rubbish and part of that rubbish was the tally tax sticks, which we had used for centuries to calculate and to charge taxes. It was decided that we would burn them, which seemed a very sensible idea at the time. A furnace was used—the furnace which heated the House of Lords—and the tally sticks were put into the furnace in order to destroy them and to heat this House. That seemed like a fool-proof plan because it was a coal-burning furnace and coal burns at about 600 to 800 degrees centigrade, while the flues were lined with copper, which melts at a little more than 1,000 degrees centigrade.
It should have been a fool-proof plan except, of course, that wood burns differently. Old wood burns fiercely and dry old wood burns quite ferociously. When Mr Cross, the workman involved, went for his tea and his pint at the Star and Garter over the road, as it then was, at four o’clock, he thought that the job was finished. But by six o’clock the flames were leaping past the windows of the House of Lords, and in one evening this perhaps less than magnificent but historic site was laid to ruin, with the exception of Westminster Hall. At the time, it became a great attraction and a sightseeing tour. One contemporary account put it thus:
“Never was a spectacle so much enjoyed. All London went to see the fire—and a very beautiful fire it was”.
I take that from the extraordinary book by a wonderful archivist, Caroline Shenton, called The Day Parliament Burned Down. Anybody who loves this House, as I do, should read it and will enjoy it. I am told that when the roof of the House of Commons fell in as a result of the fire, the crowd looking on burst into spontaneous applause. We politicians should know our place.
Out of that disaster came something of great beauty: this extraordinary Palace, which we have cherished for 160 years since it was opened. As the noble Baroness said, it is the site of the visitors who flock here with awe. How many of us, no matter how long we have spent in this place, have not taken visitors around and seen the awe that inspires them in this building? Of course, the 160 years since it opened have taken their toll in wear and tear. This place is stuffed full of asbestos; it is also stuffed full of mice. If you look at Big Ben, you will perhaps see a wonderful Gothic clock tower but a structural engineer will tell you that it is a chimney waiting to do its business. As the noble Baroness said, this is more than a building: it is perhaps the most iconic building in the entire world. It is also a symbol—a symbol which captures a spirit, a culture and a defiant sense of freedom that Britain has always been known for.
I entirely endorse the noble Baroness’s plea for a balance, and that is what it should be. We must not prevent London becoming, as it is, the most exciting and dynamic city in the world, but a balance has to be maintained. That is why this place must be preserved, not for us but for future generations. The tourists whom we take around this place would think we were mad if we allowed this place either to fall into decay or not to be given the appropriate treatment.
I will conclude simply by saying that when Mrs Cross, the doorkeeper of the House of Lords, at six o’clock on that fateful night 180 years ago, took two visitors into the Chamber, the visitors said, “There is a strange smell coming from this place”. She said, “Don’t worry, there is often an awful stink comes out of here”. I hope that we do not make the same mistake as Mrs Cross and that we preserve what is one of the most magnificent buildings anywhere in the world.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to join this debate and to ally myself with the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, in discussing both the setting of this House, the threats to that and the future of the House itself. I am very reluctant to drag the House back to the 21st century. I would be very happy to explore with the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, the implications of having a good fire and seeing what we can achieve with that. However, we are at a very serious point for all the reasons that the noble Baroness spoke of regarding the future of this House: first, in relation to what is happening in the setting in general; and, secondly, in relation to the choices that we will have to make in the foreseeable future here.
I want to talk very briefly about one particular challenge in the shape of the replacement building which is planned for Elizabeth House. That has aroused particular problems for UNESCO, and it is in itself a case study of some of the real planning challenges that we have in London at the moment. The original proposal for a building to replace Elizabeth House across the river was approved by Lambeth Council in November 2012, in the face of strong opposition from both Westminster Council and English Heritage, of which I was then chair. As statutory consultees, our challenge to that building was extremely important, and we did not do it lightly.
The case that was made was that the scale and the mass of that building, as proposed, would do significant harm to the setting of the Palace, particularly when viewed from Parliament Square. I am sure that noble Lords can picture the airy space that is now between Portcullis House and the Elizabeth Tower/Big Ben, which is absolutely central to the identity, positioning, character and dignity of this building, as it has been since the beginning: it was going to be largely blocked by the mass of a new building. So alarmed were we by that that we asked the Secretary of State to call the planning application in. We were not entirely surprised that he refused. He is not a Secretary of State given to calling in planning applications—he likes local authorities to decide—but as this case was so exceptional we were surprised that he did. We therefore made a challenge through the courts, via judicial review, to have the application reviewed.
The High Court ruled that although the Secretary of State was within his rights to take the decision, the reasoning that he put forward—which was that it did not impact with significant harm on this building—was flawed. One commentator described the decision as bizarre. The application has gone back to Lambeth for resubmission. I have gone into detail because it is important in the context of what the noble Baroness has said about UNESCO. UNESCO has been worried about the world heritage site for a very long time. It is bound to be, because this site exemplifies what outstanding universal values and world heritage really are about. As the noble Lord said, it is an iconic building. Every child in the globe would probably recognise it. At its meeting in Doha in June, UNESCO recommended that the UK should find a way of ensuring that the proposals were not approved in the current form and were revised in line with the concerns expressed.
Lambeth has come forward with the revised proposal but I am assured, and this is the reason why English Heritage is sustaining its objection, that this second proposal is very much unchanged from the first. It is very similar to the first, so we still have a big problem. That is important because, when it comes to consider it in February, UNESCO will look to see whether the application has changed. If it decides that the world heritage site should be put on the blacklist, we will be in serious trouble. We have the reputation as leaders in the world of heritage. If we cannot take care of our heritage, how can we conceivably expect the other 191 countries that signed the convention to do so?
Not only do we have what is happening to the river, but we have a particular instance about this building. Conserving this building is of the highest priority for us as parliamentarians. The biography of our country is written in this building. It will be for our generation to decide what will happen. It has been entirely our responsibility to care for it, but only since 1992. An excellent conservation plan was put forward in 2007, which won the Europa Nostra prize. We understand this building better than we have ever understood it. We know what to do. The question will be how to determine the order of priority and how to make the proper judgment. English Heritage has been fully involved in that, which gives us great confidence. However, the challenge is the long term: the different choices and the outcomes that will depend on those choices. I hope that these decisions will be shared by both Houses and that both Houses, working together, will have a very clear idea of the process, and of how to be involved in and properly manage that process on behalf of the Palace.
This is not a building at risk; it is a tired building. It needs a lot of love and attention. I hope that we will be worthy of the task when it falls to us to make the decisions.
My Lords, when I put my name down for the debate, I concentrated on the fabric of the building itself and not so much on the idea of us as an important cultural centre for the world. However, I will make one major observation about this. We are part of the original megacity, London, which is growing and developing around us and going through something of a renaissance and a rebuild. One of the reasons we want to preserve the building is because it is a good environment: it has certain cultural aspects and key points. We will probably damage our ability to attract future generations if we do not preserve the heart and soul of the site. The area around the Palace of Westminster is clearly one of those places.
The Government have a duty to say exactly what they will preserve, how they will keep it intact and how they will keep what is attracting people here and making them want to build. There is a balance between development and preserving what we have to make it attractive and to make it work together. It is never an easy thing to do, and we have plenty of examples around our country where it has not worked that well. The Government have to start to answer how they see that balance being fulfilled. If they do, the rest of the argument will become more coherent.
When it comes to the fabric of the building itself, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, was on fine form when he described how things had changed dramatically in the past to get to where we now are. I do not think we want to encourage too vigorous a model of redevelopment in the modern world. On renovation and redevelopment, the noble Baroness described the building as “tired”. I have heard stories about the confused wiring, the pipes that we do not know where they are, the patching up and the, “By the way, you know we’ll have to move out when a certain water main goes and all the water goes into the electric cables?”. I have heard those stories for two decades-plus. I am quite sure that we could patch up and make do and mend for decades to come. However, we probably should not. We should probably have the courage to turn around and say, “We will have to inconvenience ourselves”. Parliament is not good at inconveniencing itself. We are very good at telling other people to do it, but we are not good at doing it ourselves. We will have to inconvenience ourselves by making some form of alternative arrangement for the way we sit and function.
However, as I am at pains to tell everybody I take round this old building, the Palace, magnificent as it is, is not Parliament; we and the representational authority we contain are Parliament, and we can meet in a field if we want to. I would not recommend it—certainly not at this time of year—but we could do it if we had to. There are probably buildings around the area that could contain us and be used as chambers for debate. Let us face it— we moved around in the past, so we could do it. I encourage the Government and everybody within the Palace and structure to be brave enough to say, “We will inconvenience ourselves slightly for a period of time to make sure that this wonderful structure is kept going”.
Whenever I get fed up and feel overworked and unloved, I walk up and down the Royal Gallery and remind myself that people would literally kill to be here but that it is something they can only dream about. I remember how when I first got here and walked around, my chin bouncing off my chest, I thought, “I am in this wonderful place”. It may not be the most beautiful building in the world—some people would say that it is, some would not—but it may well be one of the most magnificent and special. If we cannot invest a little time and effort and inconvenience ourselves to make sure that it carries on, we are not worthy to be here at all.
My Lords, this is a splendid debate, and we are deeply grateful to the noble Baroness for introducing it in the inimitably feisty way in which she did. This House and another place have great reason to be eternally thankful to the noble Baroness, not least for what she said this evening.
When I first entered the House of Commons I could stand on Westminster Bridge and, although realising of course that it was a totally different scene, recognise that the words of Wordsworth, written at the beginning of the 19th century, still resonated:
“Earth has not anything to show more fair”.
I love this building. Over 30 years ago I wrote a book about it, trying to express that affection. However, I quickly became aware that our planning policies were deeply flawed. The first internal parliamentary fight I had—I am glad to say we won—was to defeat a proposal for a 300-foot high bronze and glass building designed by Spence and Webster on the site where Portcullis House now stands. We saw that one off. Michael Hopkins’s Portcullis House is not everybody’s cup of tea, but it is a well mannered building because it respects, in its height, the buildings around it.
It is 40 years ago since I introduced a skyline protection Bill in the other House, because I was conscious of the fact that the great city of Paris was protecting its skyline and we were not. I lost that battle because neither party was prepared to be sufficiently vigorous and vigilant. I level that charge at both major parties; the philistines have prevailed too often, and for too long. Now, as was pointed out by both the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, to whom we are, again, much in debt, we are threatened with buildings that will destroy the skyline around this great complex of buildings—the Palace, the Abbey and St Margaret’s—in the way that the skyline has been destroyed around St Paul’s. Anyone who has a real feeling for historic buildings only has to look at those great Canalettos and weep internally at what has gone. We could have developed as a vigorous city without raping the skyline. I hope that the call to arms that has been sounded tonight by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, will be heeded. We need a proper debate in this place about the future of the Palace of Westminster.
This Palace is not ours to possess but ours to guard for future generations. I believe that it is the greatest building erected anywhere in the world in the 19th century. Even if noble Lords cannot go along with me as far as that, there is surely no one who can fail to be moved by this wonderful achievement, which is itself symbolic of our country’s history and which contains so much of that history in the statues, the paintings and everything else.
Whether we have to move out for a brief period, I do not know, but the noble Lord, Lord Addington, is quite right to say that we have to consider these things seriously. I hope that we can remain within the Palace, and I am sure that he would like that to be the case, but we have to face the realities. I have been down into the bowels of this building and have seen the wires and the pipes. I know that there is a great problem. Whatever the immediate solution to that problem is, the long-term solution must be the preservation of this place as a symbol of our democracy and for the enjoyment of our people and of people around the world. These three buildings are a priceless asset. They must be preserved and enjoyed. To enjoy them, people have to be able to see them—including from a distance—rather than see that the philistines have prevailed here. I hope that my noble friend, for whom I have great regard and who I know has a personal feeling and affection for great buildings, will be able to give us an encouraging reply this evening.
My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, could I ask him to agree that on world heritage sites, ancient trees are sometimes as important as ancient buildings? The catalpa trees in New Palace Yard, which he and I helped to preserve some 30 years ago, and the pleated lime walk there add immeasurably to the whole atmosphere of the Palace of Westminster.
I still can; I thank her very much. She sat in the Commons with me on the Labour Benches and was my noble friend then. I also congratulate her on the very eloquent way in which she put her point of view today. I agree wholeheartedly with her that we must preserve this building and make sure that it fits within the context of the London that we all admire and want to see. Where I disagree with her and every other speaker so far, I think, is on the state of this building and what must be done about it. In my view, this building is on the verge of collapse. It is very close to having a major catastrophe. Either the roof will fall in, a pipe will burst or there will be some sewerage problem; something will happen which will make this building almost untenable.
I am told that the present thinking is that we will soldier on, keep going, preserve what we have and, every so often, every recess, some work will be done—probably in the Summer Recesses. That cannot work. First, it is by far the most expensive option being considered for the building. The cheapest option is that we move out completely and that the building is then reconstructed and preserved as it ought to be. It ought to be a major historic building. Apparently, we will be out for some five years. Obviously, during that time the costs will include the costs of wherever we go.
The real question is: should we come back or should we build a brand new Parliament somewhere else? Should we build a brand new legislature for the 21st century, designed to include the rapid changes that have already taken place, which this building does not do, and the changes that will take place in our lifetime—my lifetime is now comparatively short, but within my lifetime, and certainly within my children’s and my grandchildren’s lifetime? In my view, yes.
This building could become a great historic and tourist attraction—it already is. That is one of its problems: there is a clash all the time between the visitors paying to come in and the fact that it is a working building, the legislature of the United Kingdom. Surely it is time that we stopped doing that. It is time that we built a brand new Parliament somewhere else, that we redeveloped this building properly for its historic resonance so that we, the taxpayer—or they, the taxpayers, as they would consider it—will not have to bear the full cost of that.
We should think for a moment. If we redevelop this building in five years’ time, totally restore it, there will not be one extra new office for Members of Parliament or for Peers. There will still be outbuildings which will be used for that purpose. I think that the time has come when we have to say that enough is enough; this building cannot be preserved.
We can help to pay for the cost of preservation and the cost of the new building by selling off the real estate we own all around this place. We own enormous amounts of real estate. I am not saying that we should not put very strict planning laws on it—we should—but we own a large amount of very valuable property around the place. There is only a small part of this building which is historic. The interior of the building is historic; parts of the interior, from the Robing Room down to the Speaker’s Chair, are of historic importance, and so are the Committee Rooms upstairs—but that is really all. The rest of it could be used for other purposes and it could make money as a result. I am not saying, hand it over to the Russian oligarchs or anybody else—please preserve it from that—but let us at least consider the options. We could have a new Parliament, a new legislature somewhere else, preferably outside London altogether, built for the 21st century, and this building could then be properly developed, as it ought to be, as a historic building.
Before the noble Lord sits down, is there not a simpler solution, which would be to cut the numbers in this House down to a sensible number, reduce all those overheads, and do the same thing down at the other end? Then we could all be accommodated in this wonderful building and we could carry on with this great tradition.
The costs of the Members of the House of Lords and Members of Parliament are relatively small in comparison to the total cost of the preservation of this building. I do not intend to go into detail, because my time is up, but I dispute the noble Lord’s solution. I think we ought to cut the numbers in this place, yes, and I assume that the Liberal Democrats will be doing so after the next election.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, for introducing this debate. It has become two debates; one about the Palace of Westminster and one about its siting within a world heritage site. As accommodation Whip I have worked with the House authorities over the years and I admire their competence and thoroughness. The process and the studies they have gone into in looking at the palace are well summarised in the Q&A section of the Library’s pack. It concludes by saying:
“A final decision to proceed with a comprehensive restoration and renewal programme would require the agreement of both Houses”.
I have some experience in the refurbishment of listed buildings. I was responsible for 80 in my previous life and I have a good feel for what these things cost and how difficult they are. This project does not have the slightest chance of costing less than £1 billion. So my first question to the Minister is: when the two Houses have agreed what they want to do, what are the Government going to do about it? Will they find the £1 billion necessary?
Three options have been suggested by the House authorities. Option 3 is to vacate the premises completely so that they can be worked on over a period and brought back quickly and efficiently to a usable state. In my estimation—I again stress that I have some experience in this regard—that will be overwhelmingly the cheapest option, and the best value for money. It will also be, I put it to noble Lords, the least popular option among Members. If option 3 is shown to be the best value for money but the two Houses agree that they would rather have the work done around them, will Her Majesty’s Government overrule the two Houses on the basis of value for money, cost-effectiveness and a proper respect for taxpayers’ money?
I now turn to the UNESCO Elizabeth House saga. UNESCO’s position is clear. In the latest document that it sent to us it,
“reiterates its request to the State Party”—
that is, the UK—
“to ensure that the proposal is not approved in its current form and that it be revised in line with the concerns raised by expert bodies, including English Heritage”.
The debate so far has already been summarised, but perhaps it is best summarised in one of UNESCO’s earlier documents, which says:
“In its letter of 2 April 2013, the State Party”—
again, that is the UK—
“reported that, because of the concerns of English Heritage, the proposal had been referred on 4 January 2013 to the Secretary of State for his consideration whether to call it in for decision at national level following a public inquiry. The Secretary of State decided not to call in the application but to leave it to the London Borough of Lambeth. He considered that the proposed development does not ‘involve a conflict with national policies, have significant effects beyond the immediate locality, give rise to substantial cross boundary or national controversy, or raise significant architectural or urban design issues’”.
How could the Secretary of State possibly have come to that conclusion? I find it impossible to see how he did. He has, essentially, abdicated his responsibility to make a national decision about a national issue and given it to the London Borough of Lambeth. Lambeth, commendably, has reacted to the court ruling by reconsidering the application. I believe that that will happen on 9 December. But it is unfair to put this burden on poor little Lambeth. What do I mean by that? There is no criticism of Lambeth in those words, but Lambeth’s responsibilities are to the citizens of its borough—to their narrow concerns. It has strong concerns and views as to why the project might be sensible and might be favoured, but it does not have responsibility for a world heritage site. It is poor, as all local authorities are, and it cannot afford a big legal battle with a rich, powerful developer.
I ask the Government: why did the Secretary of State decide not to call in the proposal? Did he really want the development to go ahead—knowing, because of Lambeth’s already declared preferences, that if he did not call it in, it would go ahead? Or is he so committed to the dogma, or doctrine, that a local council should have sole responsibility, whatever the wider consequences?
I do not have a view about Elizabeth House. It is not an easy decision; it involves a balance between the importance of the world heritage site and the development opportunities in Lambeth. That decision should be taken after deep and careful thought—and I believe that it is the Secretary of State’s responsibility to have called in the proposal and to have had that thoughtful discussion through a public inquiry. He should have properly shouldered the burden of this difficult decision.
My Lords, it is a privilege to reply to this debate because this building represents so much about Britain across the world. It has been a symbol of freedom to the world through some of the darkest periods in history, and we have a responsibility to ensure its conservation. More than 1 million people, including 40,000 schoolchildren, visit the palace each year; millions more are drawn to the Westminster area.
The noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, has demonstrated tonight, as she has throughout her long and distinguished career in public service, her devotion to the Houses of Parliament and to all that they signify. This is a magnificent building, one of the most recognisable in the world. My noble friend Lord Dobbs spoke of some of its history and what it represents. The United Kingdom is the custodian of 28 out of a total of 1,005 current UNESCO world heritage sites, three of which are located in the capital. The Palace of Westminster, together with Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s parish church, form the UNESCO Westminster World Heritage Site. As with all 28 of our world heritage sites, the Government are very proud of the Palace of Westminster, and I can assure your Lordships that the Government take their responsibilities to conserve it very seriously indeed.
Parliament has been responsible for the upkeep of the Palace of Westminster since 1992, when the expert staff of the former Property Services Agency were transferred to Parliament to form what is now known as the Parliamentary Estates Directorate. The palace is therefore no longer a direct government responsibility, and the Government exercise their duties under the UNESCO convention, primarily through the good offices of English Heritage.
Conserving the physical fabric of the Palace of Westminster is a considerable undertaking, as many noble Lords have said. A comprehensive regime of conservation maintenance is in place, which comprises regular inspection programmes that have been in progress for many years. This includes the conservation management plan, which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, mentioned, was a recipient of the Europa Nostra award in 2005. This plan is due to be reviewed in 2015. As a consequence, much work has been undertaken or is already in progress. This includes work on the cast-iron roof tiles and the repair of the encaustic tiles designed by Minton, which have suffered from wear over the last 160 years. One of the oldest and most significant parts of the palace is Westminster Hall. The internal stonework has been cleaned and the conservation of the carved bosses is nearing completion. It was fascinating yesterday to be shown this exceptional work by Adrian Attwood, the project director, and Kimberly Renton, the head conservator. I congratulate them and all the craftsmen and women who have been involved in that project.
Consistent with the conservation management plan, works have been commissioned over the past three years in many additional areas of the palace. These include efforts to re-render the brickwork in the House of Commons, survey and repair the Sovereign’s Entrance gates, refurbish Elizabeth Tower and conserve the House of Lords Library, as well as endeavours to conserve the stonework of the external cloisters and the Star Chamber.
The noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, raised the important issue of continuing maintenance and the independent options appraisal sanctioned by the House of Commons Commission and the House of Lords House Committee, which is due to report in 2015 on the long-term renovation strategies for the palace. I was intrigued by the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, for a new parliament building. I suspect that he will not be surprised if I tell him that I am a traditionalist.
The appraisal will deliver costed analysis of options for the repair and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. It will inform the deliberations of both Houses on the most appropriate options that strike a balance between taxpayer expenditure, timescale and relevant disruption. The work will also be an opportunity to consider broader improvements, including, for instance, disability access to the palace. The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about government staff. I am sure that he will not be surprised to hear that I think it would be prudent to wait and see what the options are and what the cost analysis is. That would be the sensible approach, but I am mindful not only of his experience of the task of maintaining ancient buildings but of the balance that will need to be struck. These matters will obviously be for consideration by the next Government.
The report will focus specifically on the substantial remedial works that are necessary to replace the building’s fundamental utilities and services. The Palace of Westminster is a historic symbol of democracy. I was very much taken with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, about its being so much part of the biography of our nation. It is also a functioning, working environment. I believe that the best option for buildings of historic significance is to ensure their continued use. The Government will support Parliament in its overall objectives to ensure the longevity of both these vital functions within the unique context of this irreplaceable building.
Westminster lies at the heart of a dynamic world city. London is an economic powerhouse, and continued development is essential to its future success and, indeed, to that of the United Kingdom. Through the centuries the capital has managed to do so by balancing the old with the new. My noble friends Lord Addington and Lord Dobbs spoke of balance, and I very much agree. The London skyline has outstanding artistic and architectural merits in its own right. Indeed, many new developments, from the Gherkin to the Shard, can be sensitive and repect those iconic buildings that long preceded their construction.
Turning to planning, which is very much part of this debate, the Government believe that the best way to address planning proposals is to ensure existing policy and guidance are properly applied by those who make decisions. Our country has a strong planning system which provides for heritage protection, and the protections for world heritage properties in the United Kingdom, including in London, have been strengthened in recent years. Such policy includes the London views management framework, the mayor’s supplementary planning guidance on the settings of London’s world heritage sites, development plans of the London boroughs and the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework, which states that world heritage properties should be treated as,
“designations of the highest significance”.
Planning decisions will, quite rightly, be taken at the local level, and the Government will use their power to call in an application for their own decision only in particular circumstances. These circumstances are outlined in Section 77(1) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. The Act identifies issues that are beyond a purely local interest. These issues may include overarching national policy, economic growth considerations and matters relating to urban design. It is therefore necessary to seek parity between the ongoing conservation of these sites and the wider benefit offered by planning proposals.
In recent months, issues surrounding the development applications for a number of sites within the surrounding area of the Palace of Westminster, as has been mentioned, have been the subject of considerable consideration. With regard to the plans for the developments at Vauxhall Cross, Vauxhall Island and Nine Elms, UNESCO has expressed concern about the potential impact that the plans for these locations will have on the Westminster World Heritage Site. English Heritage, in its capacity of holding a statutory role in the planning system affecting the historic environment, does not, interestingly, share UNESCO’s concerns. The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, and other noble Lords, however, spoke of the proposed development of Elizabeth House at Waterloo. The decision is the responsibility of Lambeth Council, and the recent High Court case heard by Mr Justice Collins confirmed that that is the case. As the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, mentioned, Lambeth Council will review the planning application in December. I know that the council is fully aware of its obligations and the balance that needs to be struck.
Finally, the Shell Centre development on the South Bank is currently the subject of a High Court challenge. It would obviously be impossible for me to comment on an issue that is now a matter for the court. Westminster was discussed at the World Heritage Convention in Doha. The committee discussed the impact that development may have on Westminster and its continuing status as a world heritage site. The committee also requested an updated state-of-conservation report by February, which is usual in such circumstances. The Government will again demonstrate our commitment to preserving this site by outlining the parliamentary authority’s rigorous plans for conservation, repair and renewal.
London has constantly been evolving and must adapt to its continued growth. There is a strong heritage protection in place through our planning policy to support sensitive and sustainable development. The Government will continue to work with UNESCO; emphasising our commitment to preserving Westminster’s Palace, Abbey and parish church. As a number of noble Lords have said, it is a great privilege to work in this iconic building. We cherish it and have great affection for it. As my noble friend Lord Cormack stressed, the palace hosts one of the busiest parliamentary institutions in the world and as a consequence there is a duty to provide a fully functioning and safe environment for the thousands of people who work within its walls and visit each day to engage in the political process.
I have listened very carefully to everything your Lordships have said, including the robust and strong views expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and others. I promise to reflect all that has been said to ministerial colleagues. We must ensure that the Palace of Westminster’s fabric, surroundings and iconic status are safeguarded effectively for the benefit of present and future generations. We are the current guardians, as my noble friend Lord Cormack said.
Constructive conservation, renewal enabling Parliament to function in a contemporary manner, and regard for its historic setting are all part of the challenges to secure the future of this great building at the heart of our national life.