Parliament could be destroyed by ‘catastrophic’ Notre Dame-scale fire if restoration is delayed, MPs warn
Parliament could be destroyed by a fire like the one that devastated Notre Dame cathedral unless officials and MPs stop “passing the buck” on restoration works, MPs have warned.
The report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said that there was a “real and rising risk that a catastrophic event will destroy the palace before it is ever repaired and restored”.
Speaking to i, the committee’s chair, Meg Hillier, said that successive bodies have been “passing the buck” on the renovations over fears about the high costs and the challenges of the “very technical” programme.
“Everyone thinks they won’t be standing when the music stops – i.e. when the place burns down, falls down or something catastrophic happens,” the Labour MP said.
She compared the possible scale of the destruction to the fires that caused significant damage to Notre Dame Cathedral in 2019 and Windsor Castle in 1992.
“We’ve had so many near misses. We’re very lucky that the building is undamaged, but there are problems throughout – the drips, the leaks, the masonry falling, the fires, all of those things are happening.”
Setting out the current state of the parliamentary estate, the PAC report said that while there was a limited risk to life in the event of a fire, the Unesco World Heritage site would be “unlikely to be preserved” should one break out.
There have been 44 fires on the estate since 2019, and fire is considered the “foremost risk” to the palace in the future, and there are currently 24 full-time fire wardens who patrol the estate in teams of eight at all times to monitor the estate.
Ms Hillier said that another major concern was the presence of asbestos throughout the building after parliamentary authorities warned the substance could be present at around 2,500 sites on the estate, and removing it would require an estimated 300 people working for two and a half years.
She said the removal of asbestos meant it was essential that politicians and staff leave the parliamentary estate during renovations for their own safety.
The Labour MP also criticised the “very small number of MPs” who were objecting to the prospect of politicians and staff decanting from the palace while work took place.
“There’s a few people who really just do not want to leave the building, it’s not reasonable not to move out of the building. If you want to do the work safely, you have to move out, and we don’t know how long that will be for at this point.”
Legislation setting out plans to renew the Palace of Westminster came into effect in 2019, and it included a Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority which was responsible for the works.
The Sponsor Body was later abolished in 2023, with clerks of both the Commons and Lords taking joint accountability for restoring and renewing the palace.
A new Restoration and Renewal Client team has since been established, which is expected to report by the end of 2023 on how the programme will operate going forward.
MPs on the PAC said progress on renovating the Palace of Westminster, which includes the House of Commons and House of Lords, had been “painfully slow” over the last 25 years.
“For progress to be made Parliament still needs to agree what a restored palace might look like, and how work will be undertaken. Without this steer, the cost and timeframe for the work will remain uncertain,” the report read.
“It is incredible that five years after the House determined a course of action that these questions remain unanswered.”
Members of the PAC also warned that “lack of action is not value for money” as the maintenance of the estate was currently costing the taxpayer £2m a week.
It was estimated in 2022 that restoring the palace could cost between £7bn and £12bn over 19 to 28 years if politicians and staff decanted to another venue.
However, this figure could rise to up to £22bn and take up to 76 years if people continued to work on the estate while the restoration process continues.