Comment: Restoration and Renewal - why it's time for Parliament to put its house in order

Professor Matthew Flinders, Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield, says decisive action is needed to progress the planned restoration of parliament.

Restoration and Renewal - why it's time for Parliament to put its house in order

by Professor Matthew Flinders, 17.3.17, posted in Politics Home

The restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster was never going to be a quick or easy project. Indeed, anyone who understands the culture of parliament, its rather complicated governance arrangements or the historical experience of previous restoration phases would probably have expected a rather slow, cumbersome and at times frustrating process.

This is, to some extent, what has occurred. It has now been over six months since the Joint Committee’s Report recommended that MPs and Peers commit to a ‘full decant’ of the Palace of Westminster. In many ways this was a bold and completely sensible recommendation. And yet at the same time it is understandable that MPs and Peers might need time to consider the full implications – the risks and opportunities – of such a move.

Democratic politics is by its very nature a fairly messy exercise in conflict resolution and therefore the fact that it can be slow, difficult to understand from the outside, and produce what economists would call ‘sub-optimal’ decisions is arguably part of the beauty of this worldly art rather than necessarily a failure.

The problem, however, is that as time goes by the nature of the restoration and renewal challenge becomes more urgent, the scale of the project becomes more complex and the already eye-watering cost of the proposed work increases—by an estimated £60m-£85m each year (as estimated in the Independent Options Appraisal).

With this in mind, the parallel inquiries of the Public Accounts Committee and the Treasury Select Committee underline the risk of institutional gridlock and inertia in very different ways.

The report (published 10 March 2017) by the Public Accounts Committee provides a clear and crisp review of the evidence and makes a clear recommendation that further delays in the decision-making process should not (indeed, cannot) be tolerated. The ‘preliminary report’ published just seven days later by the Treasury Committee appears committed to taking the decision-making process backwards rather than forwards. The Treasury Committee states that it will ‘examine how serious the risks are’ while also stating that they will also ‘pay particular attention to Option 2’ (i.e. the partial decant that all the other inquiries and committees have already rejected)

What appears to be emerging is a rather odd process of history repeating itself. Anyone interested in understanding the politics of restoration and renewal and the risks of failure would be well advised to read Sir Barnett Cocks’ book A Mid-Victorian Masterpiece – The story of an institution unable to put its own house in order (1977). The fact that Cocks was himself Clerk of the House of Commons from 1962-1974 adds an extra sense of poignancy and insight to this account.

The risk is that a situation of institutionalised gridlock with a strong historical pedigree appears to be emerging whereby MPs (and peers) want greater clarity on the costs and implications of the project which can only be achieved by moving to the next stage in the process, but MPs and peers are unwilling to move to the next stage without having more detailed costings.

However, it is important to recognise that the preliminary studies carried out so far – the 2012 pre-feasibility study, the 2014 independent options appraisal, and the 2016 joint committee report – were never tasked with delivering detailed costings. The Palace of Westminster is a complex and unique building and the precise state of parts of the infrastructure is unknown, as it is inaccessible. In fact, the Joint Committee stated that that “It is not possible to set a precise budget for the Programme at this stage”.

Instead the Joint Committee recommended that a fully detailed and costed set of specifications should be developed by an independent delivery authority, to be established following a debate and vote in both houses. This is the critical point and the solution to the current risk of gridlock is therefore to have the debate, have the vote and let the delivery authority prepare the detailed plans and costings that MPs and peers demand ahead of making any final decisions.

No one is being asked to sign a blank cheque at this stage – or even to take a preliminary decision on the options. What is needed, simply, is permission for a more detailed investigation to take place. That is, an investigation that the Treasury Committee appear to want but simply do not have the resources or expertise to undertake themselves.

The leader of the Commons, David Lidington, had announced that the debate and vote was expected to take place before the Easter recess but the Treasury Committee’s conclusion that it would be ‘imprudent for the House to commit to a specific option or timetable’ may have scuppered that ambition. Now, what was the sub-title of Sir Barnett Cocks’ excellent little book……?

Professor Flinders is leading a multi-disciplinary research project – www.designingfordemocracy.uk – on the restoration of the Palace of Westminster.

The Crick Centre Annual Lecture 2016

The Rt Hon John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, discussed Designing for Democracy during the Crick Centre's annual lecture last year.