The Palace of Westminster is built on a marsh, literally and metaphorically. A 2012 study warned of “major, irreversible damage” to the buildings without “significant conservation work” costing billions of pounds. But essential works have stalled. Nothing will happen – or possibly even be decided – in this parliament; the beginnings of renovation might be a decade away.
Meanwhile, the building is disintegrating faster than it can be repaired. The Labour MP Chris Bryant estimates that each year of delay adds £85m to the costs. In June 2016, parts of the basement flooded on the day of the EU referendum; last year, a sewage pipe cracked and its contents seeped into the basement through the ceiling, creating an indescribable stench.
I recently spent a day crawling around the palace – in the basement, in the chimney, in the towers. I met the archivist Caroline Shenton in the Victoria Tower. This is where the parliamentary records are housed. In an emergency, it would take a year to remove all the documents – just one fragment of the insanity of this building. “But,” she told me, “we are too keen to blame the building.”
The old Palace of Westminster was not designed to house a modern legislature. On 16 October 1834, most of it burned down. Two men were told to dispose of wooden tally sticks – an ancient form of record – in a stove underneath the Lords chamber. It was a day of high winds; the chimney caught fire. Thomas Carlyle, who witnessed the conflagration, wrote:
The crowd was quiet, rather pleased than otherwise; whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it: “There’s a flare-up (what we call shine) for the House o’ Lords.” – “A judgement for the Poor Law Bill!” – “There go their hacts (acts)!” Such exclamations seemed to be the prevailing ones. A man sorry I did not anywhere see.
The old palace was a mismatch of medieval buildings: Henry III’s Painted Chamber, St Stephen’s Chapel, William II’s immense Westminster Hall, which was saved from the fire. After 1834, much of the palace was replaced by something entirely new, a building of classical structure and plan, with Gothic detailing. Architect Charles Barry was self-made and determined; he allowed the palace to rise and swagger. Augustus Pugin, the Catholic draughtsman who added the fashionable Gothic flourish inside and out, was delicate and sensitive; he gave the palace its unreality and religious longing.
The construction was agony. Nothing of this scale had been attempted before. Shenton calls it “part cathedral, part monument, part gentlemen’s club”. It covers eight acres now, some of it on land reclaimed from the river. It is more town than house. The plans changed constantly. When the new Palace of Westminster was finally completed in 1870, there were 1,180 rooms, 4,000 windows, 126 staircases, three towers, two miles of corridor and the longest river frontage in London, at 980 feet. The building was three times over budget, at £2m, and had taken 30 years to build. The initial estimate was six years. The anxiety shortened the life of Barry. He died in 1860 and never saw the Union Flag fly from the Victoria Tower, although his funeral cortège passed by. It helped to kill Pugin, too; his designs for the clock tower were finished only shortly before his death in 1852, insane, possibly of syphilis, after a spell in Bedlam.
Many workmen were killed during construction of the new Palace of Westminster, although the number was never recorded, and there was a strike among the rest. Members refused to move out and instead sat in temporary buildings and grumbled.
In Mr Barry’s War: Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament After the Great Fire of 1834, the archivist, Shenton, writes that politicians are behaving now as their predecessors did. “The parallels are very striking,” she says. “The arguments and the squabbling!” Politicians want something glorious but delude themselves about the cost, the timescale and the vulnerability of the building; they worry about what the public will accept.
I wandered around the archive, with its curious rolls of parchment on shelves. It was remodelled in the 1950s, and it looks like the interior of a lighthouse. There are stains on the walls and the floor because the guttering, the roofs and the air conditioning leak.
Shenton sees the building as a body “with circulation and a pumping heart – it’s alive”. It was designed to be like this: the Commons and the Lords on a single axis, meeting at Central Lobby. It was the stone expression of the Victorian ideal of democracy and, because it is a metaphor, they made it and neglected it.
In 2014, Deloitte drew up estimates for three separate options for restoration and renewal works: moving out completely for six years, at a cost of £3.9bn; partially moving out for 11 years, at a cost of £4.4bn; and not moving out at all, for 32 years, at a cost of £5.7bn – the mistake of old.
In September 2016, a joint committee chose the first option, “a full decant”. Its report warned of “a substantial and growing risk of either a single catastrophic event, such as a major fire, or a succession of incremental failures in essential systems which would lead to parliament no longer being able to occupy the palace”.
That was more than a year ago, and still they squabble. In January this year, the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, announced that MPs would be asked to vote on whether repairs should go ahead or the plans sent back to yet another independent body for re-examination. The government, meanwhile, wants to delay even a decision on when the works should start.
As officials ponder the nightmare scenario (a flood knocks out the alarm and a fire starts – there are about ten fires a year, and the palace is patrolled day and night by people looking for smoke), schemes to assist the renovations abound. Architect Norman Foster designed a “pop-up parliament” to sit in Horse Guards Parade. It looked like a pair of glass breasts, and it died – for where would Trooping the Colour go? Should the Commons go to Richmond House, which is empty and waiting, or to Westminster Hall? Should the Lords go to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre across the square?
MPs want to retain “a foothold” in the palace and return for great occasions. Perhaps they think of themselves like the ravens in the Tower of London; according to the myth, if the birds leave, the kingdom will fall. Last year, Labour’s Margaret Beckett said that if MPs left, they might never return. She did not mention ravens but I am sure someone will, eventually.
During my tour, Andy Piper, the design director for the Palace of Westminster restoration and renewal programme, emerged from a black door marked “Engineer’s Control”. He opened another door, and we walked to the basement. It is vast, and it smells awful, even though parliamentary sewage from 14,000 pass-holders is these days shot into Bazalgette’s sewer with compressed air. When Piper told a gathering of engineers about this, they gasped. There are grey walls, grey floors and pipes and wires everywhere, some of which are sticky; it rumbles like a living creature, and it’s hot. I would not like to spend a night here.
Bricks are crumbling; empty pipes stick out of nowhere; there are warnings of asbestos. The palace is riddled with it but in order to remove it the building must be, in effect, dismantled. There is a plan to use the basement as a service corridor and free up space upstairs for visitor and disabled access – the lifts are in Victorian stairwells, which are too small for wheelchairs – and another plan to glaze courtyards to make pleasing spaces, like the atrium at Portcullis House. But everything is subject to parliamentary directive, anxiety and whim. Securing a slot to remove some BBC equipment from the press gallery took ten years.
We walked down a dark path to the sewer. Piper said that we were near the press gallery and I believed him. One of the compressors was broken; the smell was terrible. I cannot conceive of the glories above – Pugin’s House of Lords, sitting on seething waste, unsafe wiring, poisonous insulation and marshland. Perhaps that is the problem. This palace is so convinced and convincing of its grandeur.
The Palace of Westminster is built on a concrete raft, which sits on Thorney Island (“Thorn Island”), an eyot in the Thames made by rivulets from the River Tyburn. The building is structurally sound, even if Elizabeth Tower leans 22mm to the north-west. “It is not falling down,” Piper said calmly. “It is falling apart.”
The ventilation system – designed by the Scottish inventor David Boswell Reid, “the Great Ventilator” or “the Great Puffer”, who was later sacked – was constructed to draw air from the Victoria and Elizabeth towers, using a steam-driven fan in the basement, and send it through the palace via a series of shafts. (Almost every room has a fireplace, but there is only one chimney. No fire has been lit here since 1956.) These shafts are full of wires and pipes delivering systems to rooms that are filled with the combustible materials Pugin used to decorate his palace. Telephones arrived in 1883, electric lighting in 1884 and a solitary lift in 1893. They have been overlaid for years, and no one knows what is where. Piper also thinks the building is alive. He compares it to veins in an ailing body, which, if the politicians don’t leave, will be repaired while the patient is awake.
We paused at a shaft called B62-E. “It is one of a hundred like this,” Piper said. “This is how we get water and cooling and heating and power and electrics throughout the building. The problem is typical of all these risers, [wires and pipes] layered on top of each other, done in compressed recessed periods, stuff installed as quickly as possible.” There are warnings all around the palace: “No drilling, knocking or other noise to be created when the House is sitting.”
If pipes leak, workmen cannot get to them; new systems fail because they hang next to heating pipes. “By 2025, half of everything I see will be classified as at major risk of failure and everything else won’t be far off,” Piper said. The shaft system is itself a monstrous fire hazard, built into the very structure of the building; another metaphor for fragility and hubris.
The Houses of Parliament’s principal architect is Adam Watrobski. “It’s a palace,” he said happily, when I asked why the walls of Westminster Hall, where we met, were so fine for medieval stonework. “It’s not your cottage.” Charles I was tried in the Hall; Elizabeth II will lie in state here when she dies. It survived the 1834 fire because it was in scaffolding for repairs and the roof could be dowsed with water. The cry went up: “Save the hall!”
There were more repairs after the Second World War. On 26 September 1940, a German bomb hit Old Palace Yard and lifted the statue of Richard the Lionheart off its pedestal; when it was put back, he pointed a bent sword at the sky. The south window of Westminster Hall was blown out the same year, and the south and east sides of the cloisters of St Stephen’s were destroyed; in 1941, the House of Commons chamber was blown up. It was reconstructed by Giles Gilbert Scott, who also designed the red telephone box, and opened in 1950. Offices were added in the 1960s and 1970s; the underground car park arrived in 1974, now infamous as the site of the assassination of shadow Northern Ireland secretary Airey Neave in 1979. He was blown up in his car on the exit ramp.
We walked to St Stephen’s cloisters. The adjoining chapel hosted the House of Commons for almost 300 years before being destroyed by fire. The crypt, now the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, survived, and the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison hid in a cupboard on the night of the 1911 census so she could claim that she was a resident of the House of Commons and thus deserving of the same political rights as men.
The cloisters are the most beautiful part of the palace because they feel so secretive. Only the hall, the crypt and the Jewel Tower are older. Watrobski cannot date the stone; some of it may be early Tudor, and the rest was rebuilt after the German bomb in 1940. “I don’t know how old it is,” he said, “there are no records.”
The courtyards were being cleaned when I visited, part of the expensive “patch and mend” strategy; Speaker’s Court was finished. The 4,000 windows, in bronze and iron frames, must also be repaired. They no longer insulate the building – they do not keep heat in, or water out. Barry’s cast-iron roof tiles, designed as protection from the Great Puffer’s schemes, also cannot wait. Each tile is the size of a door. They are removed and taken to Yorkshire for sand-blasting and re-spraying, then replaced.
The Elizabeth Tower housing Big Ben, too, is being fixed, to the consternation of the crazier MPs. I walked with Steve Jaggs, the keeper of the clock, and Mark Collins, the estate historian, up a seemingly endless pale stairway to the sky. The wall, in places, has exploded, due to water ingress; the stone and roof were full of rust; the staircase was fracturing; the windows and clock face were brittle and peeling.
Soon we were at the clock mechanism: an amazing thing with black wheels. It will be taken apart and lowered through the clock face, where Jaggs, who was both jolly and serious by turns, will not let it out of his sight. He will secrete it in a temporary cabin in a yard, and it will be X-rayed and scanned. He does not want any part to go missing.
Sometimes, birds take out the glass panes in the clock face; in 1949, the clock slowed by four and a half minutes when some starlings perched on the minute hand. The Great Bell (Big Ben) broke twice – once when it was tested in New Palace Yard, due to a heavy hammer or the composition of the metal (no one would take responsibility), and again as it was being hung, when it cracked. The crack is still there, and the bell chimes in E flat, when it should be in E. Or, rather, Jaggs the clock keeper told me he was certain the chime is in E flat; Collins the historian was not so sure. They showed me how the bell was turned to find a new spot for the hammer, and a hole was made to stop the crack from spreading.
The bell is largely silent now, ringing out over Christmas and special occasions. Some MPs still fantasise that it will sound for Brexit, like the bell in the fairy tale of their dreams. I call it palace madness, for it is everywhere here; but Pugin had it, too.
This article appears in the 31 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration