Paris Gourtsoyannis: '˜Mother of All Parliaments' is falling to bits

Failure to agree urgent repairs to Westminster, where sewage leaks have caused ceilings to collapse, lays bare the paralysis of UK politics, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis
Workers put up scaffolding on the Palace of Westminster (Picture: AFP/Getty)Workers put up scaffolding on the Palace of Westminster (Picture: AFP/Getty)
Workers put up scaffolding on the Palace of Westminster (Picture: AFP/Getty)

An upcoming exhibit at the British Museum in London is guaranteed to be a blockbuster when it opens in April.

‘Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece’ will bring together dozens of sculptures by the French genius behind the icon that is ‘The Kiss’ with the classical artefacts that inspired him.

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Works by Auguste Rodin are being loaned from Paris, but the other half of the exhibit already resides in Bloomsbury.

Ahead of the opening, the usual arguments are being trotted out to justify the presence of the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum.

One key defence is that the sculptures taken from the Acropolis in Athens would have come to further harm had they not been ‘saved’ by the 7th Earl of Elgin, the Scottish nobleman who removed them. Claiming a work of art as your own and transporting it across a continent is justified by its global significance, the British Museum and its supporters would have you believe.

If that’s the case, which gargoyle adorning the Palace of Westminster should I chip away first, in the name of self-preservation?

It’s a provocative question, sure, but it shouldn’t be an outrageous one. The 160-year-old Mother of all Parliaments is at serious risk, from the very people it was built to house.

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Westminster is in desperate need of refurbishment. The roof leaks, damaging ornate masonry and forcing staff to put buckets out during storms. In places, the Victorian plumbing has failed, with reports of urine cascading down the walls of MPs’ offices and sewage leaks causing ceilings to collapse, forcing some staff to get Hepatitis boosters. Underground, 250 miles of cabling is so knotted that parliamentary authorities can’t be sure which service they would cut off if any of it was ripped out. An unknown amount of asbestos is hidden in ceilings and wall cavities. Most seriously, the fire risk is considered so great that a team of fire watchers patrols the building day and night, as if it was still the Blitz. The warren of modern cubicles and corridors erected in recent years leaves some staff without an evacuation route.

As was learned to collective anguish when Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building caught fire in 2014, even the most well-loved and preserved old buildings are tinderboxes if the worst should happen. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the current Palace is here because the last one burnt down in 1834.

The cost of putting everything right is estimated at £4 billion. A lot of money, but not an unreasonable amount to make a significant bequest to the next generation. That’s less than a tenth of the HS2 rail link. In any case, questions about cost have a logical flaw built in: they suppose there is a choice.

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There isn’t. In your house, if your roof is leaking, or there’s rot in the foundations, or its unsafe, you fix it. Maybe slowly, over time, to make it more affordable, but that’s just what you do. Especially if your house is one of the most recognisable buildings in the world.

Nor is there much point considering some of the zanier suggestions, such as building a new parliament in the Midlands. That might cost more, and still leave a very expensive, vacant palace in need of repair. This isn’t an invitation for parliamentary reform via the wrecking ball.

After years of equivocation, punctuated by review after report concluding that the best solution is to shift everyone out for six years and get the builders in, MPs will tomorrow finally get a free vote on what to do.

Except they might not – one of the options involves kicking the can down the road again, potentially until 2030, and Theresa May is understood to favour delaying any decision until after the next general election in 2022.

Meanwhile, the cost of delaying a decision that was originally expected in late 2016 has been estimated at £230 million. The Department of Health was shifted out of Richmond House on Whitehall to make way for MPs in November 2017; it now sits empty, while alternative premises for the department cost £6 million a year.

The Conservatives came into government attacking Labour for not fixing the roof while the sun was shining, but they are putting the metaphor into practice. It mirrors the wider paralysis of the political system, terrified by its own unpopularity and forced to do things with terrific consequences out of fear.

If MPs can’t decide to fulfil even the most basic of responsibilities to the next generation by not trashing the building they meet in, simply because it’s too difficult, how can they meet the monumental challenges of Brexit?

It seems bizarre and inappropriate that the decision is left to MPs at all. The writer and architectural historian Gavin Stamp wrote bitingly about the traducement of Britain’s built heritage under the pen name ‘Piloti’, covering everything from pubs to school houses, but his last campaign before he died in December was to save one of the grandest buildings of all.

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In one of his final articles, for Apollo magazine, he put it more harshly than I would, but didn’t miss. “It is the building … that gives them any sort of stature and glamour,” he said of MPs. “Without the setting of the Palace of Westminster, many of them clearly fear that they will appear as the drab mediocrities that most of them are. And they are right.”

Parliamentarians, Stamp concluded, are tenants, not landlords. The Palace of Westminster “doesn’t just belong to them: it belongs to all of us”.

At a time when the politics of sovereignty and identity is at its peak, it seems particularly odd to be letting a British icon go to rot. Anyone who has seen the latest Churchill film, Darkest Hour, can see that as unpopular as politicians are, parliament remains a secular shrine.

If the UK wants to be seen as a beacon of parliamentary democracy, it needs to fix the place where it’s housed. Otherwise, who knows who might steal that title away – figuratively or otherwise.