As parliament mulls its options for refurbishing the Palace of Westminster, it could learn from what happens when an estate is left to ruin

Sarah Richardson

The revelation that the Houses of Parliament will cost up to an estimated £6bn to repair has sent MPs, and much of the UK’s media, into a heated discussion over stonework, potential subsidence, and the viability of carrying out work around particularly demanding tenants. And, most provocatively, over the point at which the cost of repair work means it should not be undertaken at all.

To take the final point first: the sums cited in last week’s parliamentary-commissioned report, carried out by Deloitte, Aecom and HOK, undeniably amount to an eye-watering cost for a country experiencing budget cuts to virtually every area of public spending.

But even so, there will be few people who genuinely want to see one of the UK’s most revered buildings fall into ruin, or - if problems cited in a previous surveyors’ report are accurate - literally slide into the Thames.

But saying that the Houses of Parliament need to be preserved is very different from saying that parliament itself cannot - or indeed should not - function outside of the walls of its ancestoral home, at least temporarily.

Of the options presented for refurbishment, by far the most costly is the one unsurprisingly believed to be favoured by many MPs: the one which does not require them to move out, and entails a programme of rolling repairs to be done around them.

But given that the report estimates that carrying out repairs in this way could almost double the cost to taxpayers, it would be good to see MPs focus on the opportunities that a partial or complete temporary decanting of parliament could offer - and at the same time not hurl more money at the project than is absolutely necessary.

A regional relocation to a series of one-off bases would be a powerful statement. But the practical arguments around transport, cost and security still favour London as parliament’s main base - there are several viable options for a relocation within the capital.

And as any construction consultant could tell MPs, there has been a plethora of research done on the impact of varied office environments on employee performance, wellbeing and attitude. Perhaps, rather than the adversarial layout of the Commons debating chamber, more time spent in an environment architecturally suited to collaboration might actually benefit the country’s elected representatives, and give them some fresh approaches to policy making to take back with them on their return to Westminster.

The costs of even the least expensive option cited in last week’s report have already been called into question - both by those who say they are too low and layered with risk (see news page 10) and by a few commentators who just think builders are prone to overstating costs, and that MPs can - and should - get a cheaper quote.

But rather than contesting the price of the work, those appalled by the figures - especially those within parliament - might do well to reflect that this is, on a very public scale, a demonstration of what happens when an estate is effectively left to run to ruin, with minimal repair work, or, in some cases, none at all.

Because this is exactly the problem that is facing the school estate, the UK’s transport network, and the thousands of homes that are leaking emissions because of the lack of energy efficient upgrades and repairs. And that problem will only get worse the longer politicians prioritise small savings over rolling improvement programmes that at least keep pace with inexorable deterioration.

There surely can be no better time to convince MPs of the problems that follow a legacy of underspending on upkeep than now.

Sarah Richardson, editor