Wither Westminster: How do you fix a crumbling parliament?

Britain’s parliament building is a mess, and many politicians there wouldn’t have it any other way

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

London Bridge isn’t falling down, but the Palace of Westminster is another story. Last week in Britain, Speaker of the House John Bercow said in a speech to the Hansard Society that without a massive renovation, the neo-Gothic riverside pile will become uninhabitable within the next two decades. Or, as he rather more grandly put it, “It would be a huge pity if we decided that by the time we had reached the 200th anniversary of the vast fire which consumed the old Parliament and brought this one into being, we had to abandon this site and look elsewhere . . . Yet I will tell you in all candour that unless management of the very highest quality and a not inconsequential sum of public money are deployed on this estate over the next 10 years, that will be the outcome.”

It was not the need for restoration that surprised anyone, but the absolutely shocking price tag, which Bercow estimated to be somewhere around $5.7 billion. This announcement set off a debate in the British papers about what to do with Westminster, which has been a meeting place for the British Houses of Parliament (which today include the House of Commons and the House of Lords) since the 13th century.

According to a 2012 study by the Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal Group, the building is in dire need of refurbishment, a fact made evident by its crumbling stone facade and asbestos-stuffed walls. Situated on the Middlesex bank of the River Thames, it is also prone to flooding and leaks.

But all of this is now part of the building’s history and character—and, in some ways, a point of pride for many British politicians, a group that have an almost unnatural fondness for crumbling institutions and faded grandeur. In the recent BBC TV documentary Inside the Commons, Prime Minister David Cameron described Westminster affectionately as looking “half like a museum, half like a church and half like a school.” (An observation that only applies, if you happen to be a former classmate of Harry Potter or an old Etonian like Cameron.)


Anecdotes of decay have become part of the mythology of place. Last week in the Daily Telegraph, Tory MP Michael Fabricant reminisced about a meeting he’d hosted between MPs, members of the House of Lords, and members of the U.S. military. When screams broke out from the back of the room, he wrote, “I feared a jihadist attack. The admiral stopped speaking, and an embassy security man gave curt instructions into his wrist . . . and then all was revealed. Three little mice were scurrying around, enjoying the crumbs of our nibbles.”

Like most Britons, Fabricant would like to see Westminster properly restored. But this will be no easy task. It will almost certainly require both Houses to relocate for a few years during the renovation. The question of where has kicked off a heated debate of its own. Fabricant suggested Lichfield, a small city in Staffordshire, which “was once the ecclesiastical capital of Mercia,” and also happens to be smack in the centre of the country—and in his own constituency. Others have suggested that the decaying building should be turned into a museum, and another city should become the U.K. capital, vaulting the country into a brave new age of North American-style devolution. Writing for the Independent, columnist Matthew Norman suggested building a brand-new parliament somewhere in the rural and rainy northeast. The idea, he suggested, was to follow the North American model of choosing a capital with a climate and landscape “inhospitable enough to force representatives to spend as little time there as possible, and as much in their home states among the people who elected them.”

Cheeky as the debate might seem, there are serious impracticalities to staying in Westminster beyond the leaky roof. The Commons is so cramped, it can only seat 427 of Britain’s 650 sitting MPs. At the weekly prime minister’s questions, many MPs end up shouting at each other while standing at either end of the gallery. In 1941, the chamber was destroyed during the Blitz, and some argued it should be reconfigured to give MPs more breathing space. The debate raged on, but in the end, prime minister Winston Churchill put an end to it by arguing that the Victorian chamber be replicated to preserve the “intimacy and theatre,” as well as a link to history.

Bercow, in his speech, said he agreed with Churchill. “This is a fabulous institution located in awesome surroundings,” he concluded. “It will require bold and imaginative managerial leadership to ensure that we are a parliament fit for purpose, and that this Victorian legacy can be rendered practical for contemporary representation.” Which is a fancy way of saying it’s time for a makeover; let’s hope we can afford it.