On the day before Andrea Leadsom resigned as Leader of the House of Commons, she was involved in an important debate about Parliamentary Buildings which was the second reading of the ‘Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill’ which she has introduced into Parliament. Despite the way these buildings are treated by MPs as their own buildings, in fact it is clear that they belong to the nation as a whole. After all it is the nation which funds these buildings and which is impacted significantly by the way Parliament operates. For Parliamentarians to dominate what the future looks like and when the work is to be carried out seems very dubious. After all they are elected and selected through mechanisms that begin with the votes that we all have the opportunity to cast and so it is the voters whose views must be seriously considered.
One of the first comments that was also very important came from Frank Field “Most people must be in favour of something happening, but I question the timing. There are many people in all our constituencies who are hungry and face destitution. How dare the Government bring forward a Bill before we are out of austerity and have made good those cuts in the living standards of the very poorest?” The response from Leadsom was that in fact the cost of doing nothing in Westminster would in reality add to the nations expenses and it was vital that work begins. However it is clear that austerity has ended and it is only the politicians who are preventing the funds from being released to begin to restore the position of people who are facing destitution.
Then came a comment from Sarah Wollaston which raised a number of very valid points “On the point about legacy value, would it not be better to have a Chamber that we could use for more constructive purposes? Rather than this adversarial approach, we could have a circular or semi-circular Chamber, with electronic voting facilities, so that we do not build in obsolescence, and we could then use it afterwards—for example, for citizens’ assemblies and other forums where we want to engage with the public.” The response was “I hope the hon. Lady will appreciate that the purpose of the Bill is merely to establish a Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority, which will give the best value for money against a professionally run project that seeks to restore the Palace of Westminster.” Leadsom then went on to suggest that it was important for ideas about the future design to be submitted to the northern estate programme.
However the third comment that I found worth referring to came from Tim Loughton and although his comment only reflects one element of what is needed, the response by Leadsom indicated why we need to see a change to this Bill. “My concern, putting on my hat as chair of the all-party group on archaeology, is not with what is in the Bill but with what is not in the Bill. The Leader of the House will be aware that when the underground car park was built some decades ago, proper archaeological conservation did not take place, and part of the old palace of Edward the Confessor was probably lost.” What Tim was calling for was some limitations of what the Sponsor Body and Delivery Authority can do. However Andrea Leadsom pushed that away and stated “this should be a parliamentary project, and what the Government are seeking to do in bringing forward the Bill is merely to facilitate the will of Parliament. We are setting up a Sponsor Body, which will be made up of seven parliamentarians and five external members, so that it can establish a Delivery Authority. Those bodies—the Sponsor Body in consultation with parliamentarians, and the Delivery Authority in consultation with many external stakeholders—will be able to decide the best way to proceed.”
It seems vital that the sponsor body is made up primarily of external members with only a small proportion of Parliamentarians or else the prospect of making radical changes may be lost for several generations to come.