Someone Left The Cake Out In The Rain
Britain’s parliament is broken. It is a fire risk. It is insanitary. Asbestos worms its way through the building. Many of the pipes and cables that carry heat, water, electricity and gas were installed just after the war and should have been replaced in the 1970s; some of them date from the 19th century.
These were the stark opening sentences from an article in The Guardian in December 2017 by Charlotte Higgins under the self-explanatory headline:
‘A tale of decay’ the Houses of Parliament are falling down
Some more titbits from its early paragraphs
The building caught fire 40 times between 2008 and 2012.
Every hour of every day, four or five members of the fire-safety team are patrolling the palace, hunting for flames.
…the palace is tatty, dirty and infested with vermin. Its lavatories stink, its drains leak.
Inside the building, intricate fan vaulting is flaking off, damaged by seeping rainwater and leaking pipes. Its Gothic-revival artworks are decaying…
We normally see the Palace of Westminster on our television screens from the opposite side of the Thames, to all appearances solid, majestic, immutable, the quintessential symbol of enduring Britain.
But, Ms. Higgins pointed out:
…the peril is largely invisible — both to the public and to most of its 8,000 or so workers. Most visitors see only its grandeur…
The sanctity of the “mother of parliaments” is one alibi for procrastination. Another is that nothing has gone seriously wrong - yet. As one official put it, it’s a bit like driving a car with 40-year old brakes. You can’t say when they’ll fail. But the risk is high and only getting higher. Beneath the surface, trying to keep the building safe is an increasingly severe challenge, despite continual “aggressive maintenance”. Ms. Higgins cites the report in 2016 of a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament who likened it to “trying to fill a bathtub with a thimble while the water is draining out of the plughole at the other end”.
That Committee recommended a thoroughgoing renovation which they estimated would take around six years at a cost somewhat north of £3.5 billion provided the premises were fully vacated during that period. The renovations could be done in a way that would facilitate parliament continuing to operate, but would take a lot longer and cost a lot more. It was estimated that every year’s delay in reaching a decision would add £100 million to the cost.
The intervening five years has seen lots of prodding and moving of the unappetising food around the plate rather than it being directed towards the diner’s mouth, thousands of hours of further investigation and analysis, lots of tinkering with the governance oversight and management of any restoration programme — largely attempting to square the circle of distancing parliamentarians from any responsibility for it while maintaining ultimate control of it.
In 2019, MPs voted to accept the principle of vacating the building but, like Vladimir and Estragon, despite deciding to leave, they show no signs of willingness to move.
Eventually, last February some grey smoke emerged from Westminster. Parliamentarians were presented with updated official estimates of timings and costs for the work based on the intervening research of the possible options. No surprise that the clouds had darkened in the meantime.
Now, the estimated cost of essential repairs ranged from £7–13 billion. The project would take between 19–28 years to complete, provided the building was entirely vacated for 12–20 years during this timeframe.
If MPs insisted on staying in the building but were willing to shift from their chamber to the House of Lords, the costs range increased to £9.5–18.5 billion (40% higher) and the scheduled completion time would be prolonged by 7–15 years. However, if MPs were unwilling to shift at all from the Commons chamber, the costs could reach £22 billion and the project could take up to 76 years to complete.
As Homer Simpson might say, these are big numbers.
Unsurprisingly, these findings threw all issues relating to restoration and renewal of the Palace back into the melting pot.
There is ample symbolism swirling around this situation; the contrast between the public image of the gilded Commons and Lords chambers and the leaks, odours, rust and dirt below stairs, or the quintessential emblem of Britishness crumbling before our eyes, seemingly unable or unwilling to modernise.
Reading Ms. Higgins’ article, the first image that came to my mind was that of the whited sepulchre. But, it is actually worse than that, because the building is decaying on the outside as well as inside.
Some of the external stonework has not been cleaned since it was built in the 1840s, and is encrusted with a thick coat of tarry black that is eating away at the masonry.
But the more general lesson is universal. “Root and branch” repair is very easy to talk about, but not so easy to implement, especially for institutions that have evolved incrementally over a long time without regular upheavals.
The Palace of Westminster dates back to the 11th century and has been home to parliament since the 13th. The last fundamental overhaul followed a fire in 1834 which destroyed most of the building. The subsequent reconstruction began in 1840 but, perhaps ominously for present plans, finished only in 1870.
Since then, apart from significant repairs following bomb damage in 1941, change has been gradual and quietly evolutionary rather than thoroughgoing. Ever louder and more frequent calls for serious work to be done have been met with sticking plasters and stopgaps.
In Ireland, we hear frequent calls to grapple fundamentally with longstanding, large and vital public institutions like our health services or An Garda Siochána.
But, if you really want to cleanse these modern Augean stables, you have to disturb many moving people and parts, dismantle all the current habits and complexities and reassemble something better than before while keeping everything ticking over nicely in the meantime.
And yet, if you only tinker around, opt for cosmetic or superficial change, might the risk of eventual serious explosion be greater? Was the apparent upheaval of establishing the HSE fundamental change or rebottling the same wine? Has the proliferation of “bolt-on” bodies overseeing the Gardai improved the force or just got in each other’s and the force’s way? It is not too difficult to understand why governments are simultaneously enthusiastic about and cautious towards the ambitious Sláintecare plan for major surgery on our ailing health service.
An equivalent issue on a global scale is climate change. We all will the end of restricting the rise of global temperatures but it is harder even to will, let alone execute, the means in a sustained way.
But then, there can come a point at which a problem has become so big that it is just too big to be dealt with at all. Especially in the public sphere, our decision-making structures are just not disposed to grapple with issues the resolution of which will extend over several electoral cycles, will haemorrhage money continuously along the way and show few if any positive results for a very long time. That recipe for electoral suicide is even more effective when applied to programmes which appear to make life better for politicians themselves but offer little direct benefit to voters. Imagine the public reaction if Leinster House were to be surrounded in scaffolding for a decade or more.
And the public is fickle. It craves improvement but loathes disruption. And politicians know that once they have chosen a path from the menu of options available to grapple with any serious problem, the attractions of the alternative paths not taken will immediately shine brighter in the minds of the observers in the stand who never actually grace the playing pitch.
Of course, Britain could simply move parliament out of London altogether, to one of the so-called “regions” and designate a different public use for Westminster. That could actually be a lot cheaper and faster as well as more radical and refreshing of the public sphere than trying to drag a Westminster parliament into the 21st century.
If Brexit was really about outward looking modernisation and skipping confidently towards an assuredly brighter future, then you might imagine Brexiteers would embrace a bold choice like that. Likewise, if “levelling up” was a serious policy objective.
But “levelling up” is just an unthreatening slogan. Promising everybody prizes takes prizes from nobody. And Brexit is really about retreating to an imagined better past, making Britain great — again, with London the centre of the universe and Westminster the heart of London — raising the drawbridge against an increasingly ordinary, anonymous, national future. Greece was first maybe, but Britain’s claim to be the cradle of modern parliamentary democracy is integral to its self-image.
Westminster is secure even if it is unsafe.