Houses of Parliament restoration: Commons chiefs withhold funding amid row over possible £20BN plans
Commons chiefs are threatening to ‘pull the plug’ on the Parliamentary restoration body amid warnings its plans could cost £20billion.
It is understood that the ruling Commons commission refused to sign off on two years of funding for the programme at a recent meeting – instead merely approving £155million for this year.
Senior sources told MailOnline tensions with the Sponsor Body are now reaching crisis point after a strategic review of the huge project said vacating the crumbling Houses of Parliament for years and moving MPs and peers into temporary chambers remains the best option.
‘It is a potential pull the plug situation,’ one source said, pointing out that MPs will need to approve the final plan. ‘They have got to get real.’
The Restoration & Renewal Sponsor Body was set up in 2019 to oversee an Olympics-style delivery authority for the project. The statutory organisation has a board including MPs, peers, historians and infrastructure experts.
But last week Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg slammed its approach to the overhaul, warning taxpayers will not tolerate spending £20billion turning Westminster into ‘Disneyland’.
Mr Rees-Mogg – who sits on the commission along with Speaker Lindsay Hoyle and has been hunting for ways to slash the bill – said creating the temporary chambers alone could cost £1.5billion.
He told MPs that the idea was ‘for the birds’ after coronavirus hammered the public finances, suggesting that if the estate does need to be shut down for works it should switch to virtual proceedings instead.
That would entail a minimal physical chamber, perhaps just for frontbenchers, with other MPs participating remotely.
Despite pressure for a rethink from many MPs, the strategic review concluded that staying in the historic building is ‘technically possible’ but would mean an ‘extraordinary level of risk’, extending the length of the process by ‘decades’ and a far higher cost.
Instead the review said creating temporary Lords chambers in Richmond House and the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre respectively was still the most attractive option.
It also suggested a focus on ‘essential’ works and measures to accelerate the pace, such as installing a dry dock along the length of the estate on the Thames.
A review overseen by the Restoration Sponsor Body backed a plan for peers to relocate to the nearby QEII centre during the works, while MPs would have a temporary chamber in Richmond House. But Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested it would cost £1.5billion
The strategic review suggested a focus on ‘essential’ works and measures to accelerate the pace, such as installing a dry dock along the length of the estate on the Thames
Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg (pictured) and Speaker Lindsay Hoyle have been hunting for ways to slash the bill
A source told MailOnline that the Sponsor Board, which is meant to set the scope and budgets of the overhaul, asked the commission to agree two years’ of funding at a meeting at the end of last month.
However, only £155million of spending in 2021-22 was agreed. At least the same sum would have been expected in 2022-23.
‘It asked for the second year,’ the source said. ‘They said no.’
Some peers have previously suggested lavish improvements to the QEII before they move in, including a central staircase to bring in natural light and banqueting suite on the top floor.
The Restoration & Renewal team will continue to develop a fully costed plan, but various price tags from £4billion to many times that have been estimated.
Parliament will be asked to approve the final plan with work expected to begin in the mid-2020s.
A spokesan for the Restoration and Renewal Programme said: ‘We are getting on with the vital job of restoring the Palace of Westminster by carrying out the complex work that will for the first time provide an accurate sense of costs, timescales and designs for restoration and renewal, with a focus on keeping costs down.
‘Until this work has been done, there are no properly costed plans for the restoration. We will keep costs down by continuing to identify the essential work needed and develop a restoration plan based on more than 100 investigations by specialists, including thousands of hours assessing Victorian systems and designing new services to replace hundreds of miles of old heating, gas, electric and sewage pipes.
‘We will make sure every penny is invested effectively, minimising costs of temporary accommodation, and are subject to robust audit and assurance processes.
MPs and peers voted two years ago in favour of moving off the estate for the first time since the Luftwaffe bombed chamber in 1941.
But there has been deep anxiety that the timetable – initially forecast to start in 2025 and end between five and eight years later – will stretch even further.
Opposition members of the ruling Commons commission have been accused of trying to add ‘all sorts’ of upgrades into the proposals.
Another senior Commons source told MailOnline: ‘I do not see us leaving.’
MPs are due to sit in a temporary chamber being created in Richmond House, which borders the existing Parliamentary estate.
The original scoping report produced by consultants in 2015 laid out a range of possible upgrades to the estate including creating underground meeting space below the current New Palace Yard, with ‘natural light from a landscaped courtyard above’.
Minutes of a cross-party Lords committee meeting last spring showed they discussed options for QEII including ‘the provision of a staircase through the centre of the whole building to bring in natural light and improve access options between floors’.
Following concerns that peers will be deprived of access to subsidised bars and restaurants, the minutes referred to a proposal ‘for the top floor to provide the majority of catering services, a mixture of served and self-service; with the main preparation kitchen located in the basement’.
There could be ‘smaller outlets located throughout the building’.
At business questions in the Commons last week, Mr Rees-Mogg’s Tory predecessor Andrea Leadsom said the review’s recommendation was the same as reports in 2014, 2016 and legislation that she introduced in 2018.
‘He must surely see that the risks of a major asbestos leak, a sewage failure or indeed a devastating fire such as we saw at Notre Dame are very high and remain very high and we have virtually no contingency for this place.
‘My personal motto is JFDI (just f***ing do it) and I would like to offer that to (Mr Rees-Mogg) to gird his loins to make some progress.’
But Mr Rees-Mogg said: ‘The proposal for Richmond House and for the Queen Elizabeth Centre was there would be about £1.5billion of expenditure on temporary chambers. This can’t have been a sensible thing to do, even in less straitened financial times. In current circumstances, it seems to me to be for the birds.
‘I am not the greatest advocate of hybrid proceedings, they’re better than nothing but they’re not as good as real, physical participation in debate – but I’d rather have hybrid proceedings for a little bit where we couldn’t use this chamber than spend £1.5billion.
‘And we as Members of Parliament have a responsibility to our constituents, when their money is being spent, to accept while great restorations are taking place, we may have to put up with a little bit of discomfort, there may be occasionally a little bit of banging and noise being made, we can’t be too fussy about that if we’re to keep this as a working operational building.’
He insisted: ‘Regardless of all these reports, regardless of what people have suggested, this has to get value for money for the taxpayer. We have suddenly heard talk of cost of £10 to £20billion coming up.
‘We cannot say that to our constituents. We in this House have the responsibility to protect taxpayers’ money and the other place it has to be remembered doesn’t, we are responsive and answerable to our constituents.
‘And yes, we need to redo the wiring, yes we need to ensure this place is safe and secure but we must not turn this House of Commons into Disneyland.’
MPs are due to sit in a temporary chamber being created in Richmond House, which borders the existing Parliamentary estate (artist’s impression)
Speaker Lindsay Hoyle (pictured right overseeing PMQs) has also been pushing to keep costs down as far as possible
Peers have been making plans for their temporary accommodation when the restoration of the Palace of Westminster begins. PIctured is the House of Lords last month