Construction firms may want to think twice about getting involved in £6bn Palace of Westminster job

Mark Leftly

To get a true feel for just how fiendishly complex and hazardous it will be to rescue the Palace of Westminster, it’s best to look at the supporting volumes to Deloitte Real Estate et al’s 250-page report. There are an awful lot of tables illustrating a high likelihood of something fairly major going wrong.

For instance, the option of contractors working around MPs and peers for more than three decades – and already costly at potentially £6bn - has a high risk of fire due to “hot works” and “services congestion”. In the words of the report, a fire is “almost certain to occur”.

Even the cheapest option, a full decampment of both chambers, is – forgive the oxymoron – is expected to be “more demanding than anticipated”, because of potential issues like poor security at a temporary venue for politicians. Also, specialist skills in plaster and joinery will be highly difficult to obtain. 

These risks, the report concedes, could have “huge impact on costs and/or reputation”. Given that this extraordinarily expensive feat is being evaluated at a time of even greater spending cuts, necessitated by the Conservatives’ desire to balance the nation’s books by 2018-19, “costs” and “reputation” are, in essence, synonymous.

Politicians are going to get a kicking for pressing ahead with the refurbishment, which they surely will. Of course, a few rogue MPs will try, and probably successfully, court hard-pressed constituents by suggesting moving elsewhere, like Hull or Manchester, but it is a crude idea given relocation costs and the benefits that the palace brings in terms of tourism and ease of access to Whitehall.

Firms will have to accept the bad press and terrible headlines they will receive if things go wrong

But whether it’s the minimum price-tag of £3.5bn, or it’s this whole project spiralling out of control to reach double digit billions (due diligence throws up problems, the client changes the scope of works, or small fires turn into roaring blazes), the result is the Houses of Parliament are going to be tarted up - and its already proving to be controversial.

In some ways it is astonishing how many engineering firms and technical consultants are keen to bid on this project. As one told me with a shrug of the shoulders, “It’s high-profile, isn’t it?”

All the Americans, including one-time Olympic Delivery Partner CH2M Hill and fellow Crossrail builder Bechtel, want in – not forgetting Aecom, which worked on the report with Deloitte. Executives at Atkins and Arup feel similar.

But they will have to accept the bad press and terrible headlines they will receive if things go wrong.

Make no mistake, Sir Charles Barry had a much simpler task when he was asked to rebuild the physical symbol of Britain’s democracy after the Great Fire of 1834. The great architect’s reputation was enhanced as a result of that job; it will be hard for the firms that repeat his task two centuries later to get a similar outcome. The great architect’s reputation was enhanced as a result of that job; whichever firms repeat his task two centuries later may not be the subject of any such adulation.

Mark Leftly is political correspondent at The Independent on Sunday