News that the Palace of Westminster will be out of bounds for six years for a £4bn mother of all restorations has provoked a stream of predictable responses. A strange coalition of metropolitan Guardianistas like John Harris, nationalists and devolutionists are angry that Parliament won’t be moving to a new building outside London, either permanently or temporarily. Traditionalists have welcomed the news that Parliament should move back to a restored palace in 2029, six years after the restoration begins in 2023. But just about everyone has questioned the logistics of decanting the Lords to the QE2 conference centre, and the Commons to the Department of Health building off Whitehall, in between times.
Oddly, hostility to the palace has focussed as much on its supposedly elitist Gothic style as on its London location. Few have stopped to think about the building’s form, size and shape – its bones – rather than its superficial architectural style.
I worked part-time in Westminster as an MP’s researcher from 2008 to 2012. I am known to love Victorian architecture and was often asked by friends how much I loved working there. The answer was not that much: although I worked for an MP (Nick Raynsford) I admired, and alongside some great colleagues, I found Parliament a difficult place to work in.
I was based in Michael Hopkins’ Portcullis House – that postmodern edifice with satanic slanting chimneys, airport-style atrium and an entrance lobby far too small for the retrofitted X-ray machines (the building opened a year before security was tightened post-9/11) – where many, possibly most, MPs have their offices nowadays. Security meant that the windows of Portcullis House could never be opened, and neither the air conditioning nor the heating was ever quite right. If you ventured outside the security cordon you discovered that the Westminster village does not have many amenities: only a claustrophobic Tesco and a couple of snooty pubs. You have to walk some way down Victoria Street to feel you were in proper London at all. As for Parliament Square, no wonder it only ever seems to be used for illegitimate protest: reaching the green in the middle is a mortal risk (I never found a safe place to cross the four or five lanes of roaring traffic that girdle it).
Bureaucratic processes creaked. The computers never worked properly. Unlike other organisations there was not a single, encrypted database for the labyrinthine casework we handled: instead the Labour Party had a system which broke down more often than the Woolwich Ferry. And petty rules abounded. TV crews can record interviews with politicians in Central Lobby but any visitor attempting to take a photo there is shouted at.
Like a third-class ticket on the Titanic, the colour of your Parliamentary pass determined which parts of the palace you could access and which you could not. I merely had a green, Members’ staff pass – about a third of the way up the pecking order, outranking the photocopier repair man but less important than almost everyone else. I once managed to blag my way into the Churchill Room – the kind of place where men are given a menu with prices, ladies the menu without – for lunch with a friend. Presumably I had been mistaken for a Cameroonian MP, because I later learnt that tables there were reserved for MPs, Peers and Officers of the Lords or Commons, elite tribes to which I did not belong.
For the likes of us, there were a couple of cafeteria and only one bar -the cosy but airless Sports and Social club (where I missed the spectacle of a drunken Eric Joyce headbutting other MPs) – to which we had unfettered access. The only other place we could go, Bellamy’s, had to close for conversion into a staff crèche a few years ago: space is at such a premium that Westminster can either provide childcare or a proper place for staff to have a drink, not both. All other bars and restaurants are for MPs and their guests only.
One of Parliament’s secret delights is the view from its rooftops. But there’s no official access, so they’re only ever used for clandestine purposes (in Francis Urquhart’s case, pushing his mistress to her death). A couple of friends and I once climbed out of a unlocked window in a ladies’ loo and stole onto a flat roof to have a drink and admire the view: shortly afterwards a rooftop climate change protest meant everyone was instructed never to go there again.
And everywhere there was claustrophobia. That the Commons chamber only has space for 427 of its 650 members to sit down is the least of the palace’s problems. Away from the grandeur of Central Lobby, most of the other room are poky cells off corridors totally unsuited to modern office use. New offices in Portcullis House were hardly any larger. The Palace of Westminster, and the public spaces round it, are simply trying to be too many things – a legislature, mass catering outlet, tourist attraction, state occasion venue, and traffic gyratory all at once – for any of these functions to really succeed. Although Elizabethan Gothic is a wonderful architectural style to look at, it is pretty inflexible – all those vertical piers and narrow arches mean that it is difficult to create big, lofty spaces.
But the palace’s real architectural problems have little to do with its Gothic style, or even its crumbing stonework (vividly portrayed in Michael Cockerell’s recent Inside the Commons series). It’s true that an architectural debate raged in the 1840s over whether the rebuilt parliament should be built in Elizabethan Gothic or a classical style – and that Gothic won because classical would be too redolent of republicanism and revolution. But that’s only part of the story. For all its Gothic trappings, the layout of the building is the sort of near-symmetrical grid used for most classical parliaments and ministry buildings.
And since its rebuilding by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin began almost 180 years ago, the “new” palace of Westminster has acquired a history of its own: nowadays it evokes suffragette protests, wartime bomb damage and Churchillian resolve.
The feudal associations of the Gothic style have been lost. Gothic is now seen as quirky – just as classical has come to symbolise solidity and tradition, not revolution. Too many confederate flags have flown from American state capitols, and too many dictators like Pinochet have moved into classical palaces, for the accusation that Gothic is the style of monarchy and absolutism to retain any force.
Despite all its faults, the palace is still remarkable, mostly rebuilt at express speed after the devastating fire of 1834: work began in 1840, the House of Lords first sat in their new purpose-built chamber in 1847, and the House of Commons in 1852. Although Big Ben wasn’t topped out until 1858 most of the palace was rebuilt within a decade – a great achievement given that the project involved building a new embankment on the Thames.
But haste meant that no-one stopped to think whether rebuilding Parliament on what used to be a marshy island was really wise. The site slopes, and the new embankment meant that the new Parliament Square was a good deal higher than the river Thames. As a result St Stephen’s entrance, St Stephen’s Hall, Central Lobby, and the two Chambers are all several yards above the floor level of Westminster Hall, and the level of the terrace facing the Thames to the east.
When you visit parliament for the first time you are struck not by how huge everything is, but how small: despite its immense size, the palace only has a few really big internal spaces: Westminster Hall and the Royal Gallery. Other halls – St Stephen’s Hall, the main east-west axis, for example – are really corridors with narrow swing-door bottlenecks at each end. Central Lobby and the Commons and Lords chambers try hard, but all are in fact a lot smaller than they look on the telly.
Even the most obscure American state Capitol has public spaces much larger. Ridiculously, the palace’s only really grand entrance, at the foot of the Victoria Tower, is reserved for Royals only: everyone else must scurry through the narrow St Stephen’s entrance or down ramps into service entrances.
As a result the palace has always been impenetrable, inflexible and difficult to navigate. These problems were only compounded by the construction of Portcullis House in the late 1990s. Security and traffic safety dictate that all movement between Portcullis House – increasingly the centre of gravity for MPs and their staff – and the palace is via an elegant tunnel under Westminster Bridge, which delivers a stream of pedestrians into the “River level” of the palace. All the key rooms are a storey higher at Principal Floor level, accessed only by stairs or lifts. What was supposed to be a basement for service use has instead become a buzzing circulation space for white-colour staff (take the wrong turn and you’ll end up in a boiler room, flower workshop or kitchen).
I can’t see how any refurbishment could overcome this upstairs/downstairs conundrum. With the river to the east and Parliament Square to the west, there is no further room for Parliament to expand, other than by booting out Government ministries on Whitehall. The only other alternative – excavating more basements or filling in courtyards – would inflict further damage on Charles Barry’s great building.
Recent attempts at modernisation have fallen flat, turning out either as tacky Gothic pastiche, or in the case of the Lords Bar, soulless places that look like something on a cross-channel ferry. Only at Westminster would a medieval Chapel and cloister – along with Westminster Hall, two of the most important survivors of the 1834 fire – be almost totally inaccessible to visitors. The cloister is, remarkably, home to the Parliamentary Labour Party that has such little faith in Jeremy Corbyn: a less appropriate home for an important political institution would be hard to imagine.
The question of whether or not the Palace of Westminster should have £4bn spent on it is very different from whether or not it should still house our national parliament. Although it has to be protected by razor wire and armed police, Parliament is not just the preserve of politicians (technically Westminster is still a Royal palace, not a parliamentary one, as it partly occupies the site of the old Whitehall Palace, of which today only the Banqueting House survives).
The palace is – or should be – a public space, but overcrowding and security mean that public access is very limited other than in summer recess. At other times, arranging tours of parliament involves contacting your MP and endless form-filling (a simple online booking service for the public was deemed too straightforward). When constituents turn up unannounced in Central Lobby to meet their MP, a green slip of paper is supposedly sent to the right office – but is often delivered several hours or even days after the visitors have given up and gone home.
Berlin’s Reichstag and London’s City Hall have made a cliché of the circular ramp from which the public can look down on their politicians, but like most clichés it contains a ring of truth: legislators who work in an impenetrable fortress, rather than a transparent box, are much less likely to pay heed to anyone outside. The Palace of Westminster is an apt symbol of our creaking democracy and patchwork constitution. If we want to revitalise both Parliament should move out for the necessary repairs – and stay put in a new home, or homes.
The British Museum currently attempts to be a museum of world history, too broad a canvas for it to really succeed, and only has space for a fraction of its collection. Why not use the Palace of Westminster as an overflow Museum of British History? Kensington has vast edifices devoted to natural history, science, and decorative arts from around the world (the V&A), but nowhere is there a big institution devoted to our own national history. Westminster could still be used for the state opening of Parliament and the lying-in-state of deceased Prime Ministers and Royals, but would function much better as a museum than as a legislature for the other 364 days of the year.
If the palace was converted to such a museum, some of the oppressive security – such as the discordant X-ray pavilion and razor-wire fences that disfigure the north face of Westminster hall – could be swept away (much of the security risk will move out with the politicians). The Palace of Westminster’s courtyards, currently invisible to visitors and crammed full of ugly extensions, dustbins and parked cars, could be turned into sun-dappled gardens. The Chambers and Central Lobby could be left as they are, with the committee rooms used for lectures, public meetings and educational visits. But behind the scenes, cellular offices (many of which have lost their Victorian fabric by successive patch and mend repairs over the last 150 years) could be cleared out and replaced by good-quality exhibition space.
All sorts of vested interests, and many MPs, will howl with horror at the thought of parliament moving out of Charles Barry’s masterpiece. But this could save the palace, not condemn it. Allow visitors into the Commons and Lords chambers year round, not just a couple of days a week. Move the politicians to a purpose built structure at Kings Cross or Nine Elms (where the new American embassy carries with it the watertight security that a parliament would demand).
Or better still, if George Osborne was really serious about his northern Powerhouse why not move the Parliament to Leeds, Manchester or Birmingham? How about a deprived town perfectly placed to be no more than three hours from most of the British population: Stoke on Trent? Such things have happened in many first-world countries before: Germany’s parliament has moved from Berlin to Bonn and back to Berlin again; South Africa’s government functions are split between Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town. Canberra and Brasilia are home to the national parliaments of Australia and Brazil, without toppling either Sydney or Rio from their perches as great world cities.
Best of all, why not call the nationalists’ bluff and rotate parliament around the four nations of the UK. Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh all have derelict historic buildings (respectively the Crumlin Road courthouse, the Coal Exchange and Royal High School, whose conversion to a hotel has run into trouble) which are crying out for reuse. Until the 18th century parliament regularly sat outside London. People who complain about the cost of a mobile parliament in the 21st century should be ignored: we already pay MPs to zoom up and down the country every week, and the paperless office should mean they can be more agile than ever before.
Restoring these shockingly dilapidated buildings in our national capitals would benefit everyone, not just politicians. It could be a useful corrective to an overheated property market in London, a vital economic boost to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and a powerful symbol that the British state means what it says about decentralisation, regional devolution and one-nationhood. When not needed as parliaments these buildings could become great civic spaces for culture and education.
Buildings matter. There are plenty of good reasons for Parliament to have a permanent new home, or homes: ending London’s national dominance, cost, and modernity. But the best reason of all is so blindingly obvious it is almost always overlooked: even if billions are spent on restoration, the Palace of Westminster simply does not work.