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Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal Programme: Spending

Volume 808: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2020


Asked by

To ask the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body how much money is being spent on the Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal Programme per week; and what is it being spent on.

My Lords, the spokesperson of the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body is the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market.

My Lords, in accordance with the annual estimate agreed by the commissions of both Houses, weekly spend to date has been £1.8 million. The current spend includes thorough surveys to fully understand the condition of the Palace, gathering detailed data to help inform the design options, and the scoping and costing of those options.

I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer. Is HMG, through the sponsor board, really spending £2 million a week on this R&R project, as asserted by the PAC report? The late David Frost would have called this “monopoly money”, as he did in “Frost over England”, and £2 million is a huge amount of taxpayers’ money. Can the noble Baroness tell your Lordships exactly what it is being spent on? Is it fees for architects and other professionals who have been working on the restoration and renewal programme since 2017 and still are in 2020? Can the noble Baroness tell your Lordships the budget figures for 2021? If they are unavailable, could she explain why? If she does not have them now, could she look into this later?

My Lords, there are a lot of questions within that. The fact is that this project will be one of the most complex heritage restoration projects ever undertaken, anywhere in the world. All the advice, including from the National Audit Office and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, is that thorough preparation—the surveys and so on that I have outlined—is essential to the planning. All our costings are available on the website for the noble Baroness to find, but I am happy for officials to contact her and talk her through them.

My Lords, part of the sponsor body’s budget is spent on plans for the restored building. There are 12 storeys of accommodation in Victoria Tower, with spectacular views, occupied exclusively by archives, which are infrequently visited by noble Lords. Could the sponsor body save us the rent on 1 Millbank by converting that space into offices and moving the archives, which came here only in the 19th century, to somewhere less expensive and more accessible to those who need them?

The noble Lord makes an interesting point about the use of Parliament as a whole Estate, not just separate Houses and buildings. Accommodation surveys show that there is a significant amount of accommodation potentially available in Victoria Tower. It will be for the Houses to determine how to use that space after R&R has taken place. The future location of the archive is also a matter for the House administrations, which is currently being dealt with by the archives relocation programme.

The Joint Committee on restoration, in its report of September 2016, considered the possible use of Victoria Tower Gardens during the restoration. It said that they are likely to be required as a site for construction activities, such as plant, all of which are likely to have significant implications on traffic flows in and around the Palace. What consideration is being given to keeping Victoria Tower Gardens open and available for that period?

The noble Baroness has raised an important point, highlighting just how constrained the Palace of Westminster will be as a site, once we start getting into the full restoration project. In February this year, the sponsor body wrote to the Holocaust memorial planning inquiry to request that, whatever is ultimately decided, consideration is given to mitigating impacts on access to the Palace, both from the construction of any memorial site and also its future operation.

My Lords, two months ago, the Public Accounts Committee of another place produced a comprehensive report on the R&R of Parliament, emphasising the massive and increasing cost involved. Has the sponsor body considered that report and, if so, what conclusions did it reach? Also, I understand that it was due to publish an initial review of its work this autumn. What is the state of that, as we enter winter?

The sponsor body agrees with the recommendations of the Public Accounts Committee, has responded to them and is providing the information requested. As the noble Lord said, we are also undertaking a strategic review of the programme, which is almost complete now. It will go to the commissions of both Houses and the appropriate committees for consideration, and then will be discussed by Members early in the new year.

My Lords, will the commissions of both Houses have copies of Mr Barry’s War, by Caroline Shenton, which records how the meddling of parliamentarians in the 19th century added to the costs and time to build this magnificent Palace? Will the noble Baroness assure me that she and her colleagues will keep their nerve and keep going, because we owe it to history and future generations to preserve this symbol of democracy in a troubled world?

I assure the noble Lord that the sponsor body is well aware of the lessons learned. In fact, the first item of business at our first meeting was a presentation from Caroline Shenton. The National Audit Office has highlighted that, in fact, nothing has changed: there has to be consistent political buy-in for a project of this size, which will last this long. Further to that, we are spending around £127 million this year just on ongoing maintenance, so doing nothing is not a cost-free option.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for her answers. She is answering for the sponsor body today, because of her commitment to this project. I wish that were the case for everybody making decisions on this project, but the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, on political interference was one of the risks identified by the committee on which I served in 2016, which put the urgency of the work needed at centre stage. I ask that the information she just provided about £100 million-worth of repairs each year, and what that money has been spent on, is put in the public domain and circulated to noble Lords interested in this. The PAC reported that every week of delay costs the taxpayer £2 million and puts the safety of employees and visitors at risk. That should be a sobering thought for anybody who wishes to delay this project.

The noble Baroness is right to highlight the need for consistent political support, which came across clearly from the NAO. It is difficult enough to work out the cost of doing something, but the cost of not doing something is more difficult. We are attempting precisely that because, when parliamentarians make their decisions, they must understand that doing nothing at all will be very expensive indeed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, just made a point about the ongoing costs of restoration. If the public look at the Palace of Westminster at the moment, they would think that the restoration programme is already under way, when it is a repair project and existing maintenance. It is essential that the proper work being taken on by the sponsor body, although it is costing a lot of money and is expensive, is done so that we get the best deal for the taxpayer in the long term. If this House or the Palace were to be involved in a fire, it would cost the country a great deal more.

I can only agree with the points made by the noble Lord. There are not only significant maintenance costs involved on an ongoing basis, but significant risk of fire, risk from asbestos, risk from falling masonry and, most significantly, risk of a total collapse of the mechanical and engineering systems.