Vara speaks in debate on the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster

25th January 2017

Shailesh Vara  speaks in a debate on the restoration of Parliament and calls for the Palace to be restored in phases so that the iconic building can remain as the seat of Parliament which is important to the UK’s international standing at a time when we seek to make new trade agreements after Brexit.

I wish to take issue with the argument in the Joint Committee’s report that it would cost £3.5 billion to decant and that that would be the cheaper option. I start by pointing to the opening page of the summary, which says in the third paragraph:

“However, there is significantly more work to be done by professionals before budgets can be set, buildings are vacated and works can commence.”

I deeply regret that that caveat is not being emphasised a lot more—indeed, it has not been mentioned by anyone in today’s debate.

It is disingenuous to say that leaving here would cost £3.5 billion and be the cheaper option. That figure does not take account of the fact that some £600 million would be spent until 2023 when the full decant would take place. Nor does it take account of the fact that if we fully decant, there would be rental costs for the offices and space that would be needed outside this building. The figure does not show up in the costing on page 39 of the report. It simply says that professional advice will be required. We are talking about millions and millions of pounds of rental costs that are not accounted for.

There is an issue with security costs. If the peers go to the QEII centre, that will mean additional security. A full decant would require additional space outside the Palace of Westminster. Those security costs have not been factored in either—again, it would be serious millions of pounds. The tourism industry was mentioned. If the QEII building closed, that would affect the conferences normally held there, which attract significant sums of money to the local economy; I have heard that it would affect our local economy by some £200 million. Nearby hotels are worried because they will not be able to let out their rooms to people who go to conferences at the centre. There will be an impact on restaurants and taxis.

The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said that if there were a rolling programme of works and we stayed here, that would be £900 million more expensive. I gently suggest that my figures come to a whole lot more than £900 million; had they been factored into the calculations in the report, we might be having a different debate.

The argument that we must move out is simply not the only one in town. Work is being done at Buckingham Palace. It has 100 miles of cables and 20 miles of pipes, yet the work will carry on while Her Majesty stays there with the entire royal household. Work will be done in segments. During the fire at Windsor Castle in 2002, 20% of it was burned down, yet Her Majesty and the royal household continued to operate from there. They did not have to move out.

As for the advice sought from experts, let us be clear: one does not need to be an expert to work out that the work will be easier if everyone leaves the place of work. That is a given, but the point is that this is no ordinary building. It is the seat of Government, and we have to take account of that fact. At the time of Brexit, when we seek to make new friends overseas and secure favourable trade agreements, do we really want to convey the image of a temporary building in the courtyard of another Government building? We have to take into account the soft-sell power of the iconic building that is Parliament. I put it gently to hon. Members that the selling power of this building far exceeds any figures for costs that have been produced here. As we have been told, it is an iconic building.

Furthermore, at a time of austerity when we are writing to our constituents and saying that they cannot have an additional few pounds for whatever they are seeking money for, do we really want to go to the public and say that, nevertheless, we want to spend billions of pounds on our place of work? I do not think that in the present economic climate that is sustainable.

The question that should have been put to the experts is not what the best way of working from here is, because the best answer is obviously that we should all clear out. What they should have been told was, “This is Parliament—the seat of Government. Go away and work out a plan for how we can continue to operate on this eight-acre site.” I can guarantee that they would have come up with a proposal had they been given that option.

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