Many thousands gathered in silent horror on the banks of the Seine to watch Notre Dame burn on 15 April, while millions watched on their phones and tablets all over the world. But all I could think about was the Palace of Westminster. Yes, Notre Dame is a Gothic wonder – the pattern for countless other cathedrals – but Westminster Hall dates from just after the Norman Conquest.
Its magnificent oak ceiling is held aloft on angels’ wings installed at the time of by Richard II; its cloisters are a near perfect example of English perpendicular architecture. The edifice, including the Victorian neo-Gothic work of Barry and Pugin, is one of the most iconic buildings in the world. No wonder thousands gathered by the Thames when most of the old Palace was ravaged by fire in 1834 – and artists reproduced prints to record the disaster, in a Victorian version of social media.
It is the responsibility of this generation of politicians to make sure that never happens again – and I hope that the scenes in Paris will finally make us realise the dangers facing Westminster. For more than a decade, many of us have warned that the Palace is a potential death trap.
The structure of the Victorian building doesn’t help. Running through the basement and the roof are tunnels connected by 98 risers. Originally, they were intended to transport air around the building, but these tight spaces have since been filled with high voltage electricity cabling, water and gas pipes, IT and phone cables and high pressure steam central heating system, all wrapped in asbestos.
Some of the cabling is so old that it is falling apart and could all too easily spark a fire in a space that is so inaccessible it would be impossible to spot before it had taken hold. A string of fires have already occurred in recent years. One in particular, in June 2016, on the roof of the plant room near the Lords, was spotted early and extinguished, but might easily have gone undetected if it had happened at night.
As Notre Dame has shown, fire can spread very rapidly in old buildings. The risers and tunnels mean that it is especially difficult to compartmentalise the Palace. Just as the new rooms built by Sir Joan Soane helped the fire spread from the Lords to the Commons in 1834, so the old risers could easily carry a fire from one floor to the rest in a matter of seconds.
Parliamentary staff have worked hard over the last few years to confront the threat. Incongruent fire doors have been brutally inserted into the Victorian spaces on all main floors as an interim measure. But the truth is that there is wood everywhere, and the building remains a labyrinth – and that’s to say nothing of the other problems, including a sewage system installed in 1891, leaking roofs, eroding masonry and endless asbestos.
Sometimes patching up work over the decades has made things worse. The replacement lantern on the roof of Westminster Hall that was installed after Nazi bombs destroyed the original. It was a botched job, allowing dead pigeons to clog up the drains and rot the wood.
As every committee that has appraised the palace has concluded, its parliamentary inhabitants will have to move out during the renovation – and we should use that moment to bring the building up to date with much better public and disabled access.
No element of this will be simple. To take one example: some of the committee rooms have valuable paintings that must be removed while the work is done. Some of these are so vast they arrived rolled up; more than a century later, they are more fragile, and may not take well to another move.
The government has dragged its heels over the renovation. A Joint Committee of both houses produced a report with a coherent plan in September 2016. The government delayed a vote on it for more than sixteen months. Parliamentarians then had to wait another nine months for a draft Bill to be produced. The Joint Committee that considered that draft Bill produced its report at the end of March, concluding, yet again that “there is no dispute that the Palace of Westminster is at risk of catastrophic failure.”
We still have no idea when we will get to consider that legislation – and the latest suggestion is that there will be a further two year delay, to 2028, before major work can begin. It really is time we woke up and smelt the charred timbers from across the Channel.
Chris Bryant MP is Chair of the Finance Committee of the House of Commons