Why is the situation so urgent?
Today the Palace of Westminster is falling apart faster than it can be repaired. Many features have not been renovated since it was built in the 19th century. The longer the essential work is left, the greater the risk of a catastrophic failure from fire, flooding or stone fall, bringing the work of Parliament to a sudden halt.
The Restoration and Renewal Programme has been set up to tackle all the work that needs to be done to protect the Palace’s heritage and ensure it can continue to serve as the home of the UK Parliament in the 21st century and beyond.
A huge challenge
The Palace has a floorplate the size of 16 football pitches with 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases, three miles of passageways, four principal floors with 65 different levels. It will be the biggest and most complex restoration ever undertaken in the UK.
The Palace has been neglected for decades. There has been significant under-investment since the Commons chamber was rebuilt after bombing during the Second World War. Pollution has caused extensive decay to stonework, the roofs and drainpipes are leaking, most of the 4,000 bronze windows need repair and the building is riddled with asbestos.
Patch and mend approach is failing
The patch and mend approach is failing, partly because this is a working parliament and major remedial work can only be tackled during holidays. According to the National Audit Office, between 2015-16 and 2018-19 Parliament spent £369 million on projects to keep the Palace in use. Over this four-year period, spending to maintain the Palace increased from £62 million to £127 million per year, totalling £369 million. Without significant restorative works, ongoing maintenance costs will further increase. There is a backlog of repairs estimated at over £1 billion.
Throughout the Palace there is poor disabled access and emergency evacuation procedures for those with limited mobility is unacceptable. Only one lift complies with modern safety and accessibility standards.
The growing risk of fire
Despite remedial work, fire safety systems throughout the Palace are antiquated. Fire safety officers are now required to patrol the building 24 hours a day. The devastating fire at Notre Dame in 2019 was a stark reminder of the importance of vigilance and the need to protect the world’s most historic buildings.
When the Palace was rebuilt after the 1834 fire, Charles Barry used brick, stone and iron instead of wood to counter the risk of another blaze. He also used innovative technology to install cast iron roofs. But when it came to the magnificent interiors, Barry and Augustus Pugin used vast quantities of combustible materials.
There are also thousands of hidden, empty voids in the Palace which were originally built into the fabric of the building in the 19th century to create one of the world’s first air-conditioning systems. Today these voids represent a major fire risk and have created ideal conditions for smoke and fire to spread quickly up through the building.
The Palace also lacks proper fire compartmentation, one of the measures recommended for all Royal Palaces after the fire at Windsor Castle in 1992. Compartmentation between floors and walls would slow the spread of fire between sections of the building. At the moment, in the event of a fire, everyone would have to be evacuated at the same time.
The Palace was built using Anston limestone because it was cheaper and ideal for elaborate carving. However, the stone quickly began to decay and little was done to prevent its decline during the 19th century. Pollution has accelerated damage to the stonework. Some stone cleaning and restoration work was carried out in the 1980s and 1990s but there is still a huge amount of vital work to be done. Much of the scaffolding around the Palace today is there to protect people from falling masonry. In 2018 a chunk from a stone angel fell off the Victoria Tower and landed in Black Rod’s garden. Nobody was hurt.
Mechanical and electrical systems
The heating, ventilation, water, drainage and electrical systems are now obsolete. Steam pipes run alongside electrical cables, and the sewage ejector system installed in 1888 is still in use today. Down in the basement there are 128 plant rooms and 98 risers, only one of which has been fully restored to modern standards. There are seven miles of steam pipes and 250 miles of cabling, all of which need to be stripped out. Since the start of 2017 over 40,000 problems have been reported in the Palace. By 2025 more than half of all the mechanical and electrical services will be at a high risk of failure.