The Palace of Westminster is without doubt one of the most important and iconic buildings in the United Kingdom, if not the world. For many it carries great symbolism as the home of the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ and even for people who have never visited it, the green leather benches of the House of Commons are part of the fabric of our political engagement.
I have been fortunate to visit many times thanks to my work and, even today, I still stop to look and think about the centuries of history and dramatic events that are ingrained in its walls.
My first visit was as a ten-year old, on a school trip to London. We were hosted by my then local Member of Parliament, Bill Rodgers, who was then in opposition and went on to be a Labour Cabinet Minister under Jim Callaghan and later became known as one of the ‘Gang of Four’ that left Labour to create the Social Democratic Party that eventually merged with the Liberals. He now sits in the Lords as a Liberal Democrat. He guided us around the Palace of Westminster with great love for the history and keenness to impart enthusiasm to his young audience.
I remember standing on the floor of the House, next to the despatch box on the Prime Minister’s side and looking at the metal fixings that hold the Mace when the House is in session. Why was this interesting? Because I had just returned from living in Zambia and noted that the metal fixing was made of copper and carried a plaque that said it had been a gift from the Government of Northern Rhodesia (now independent Zambia). Geography, politics and Empire all rolled into one!
It was a trip that made a huge impact on me as a child and to this day I retain great admiration and fondness for Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank who opened my eyes to the importance of democracy and the power of our Parliament.
In the many years that followed, I have had the great privilege through my work to visit the Palace many times – lobbying MPs and Peers, speaking at meetings and receptions, giving evidence to Select Committees and occasionally meeting Ministers. It is a building where many memories have been created.
But, as you may know, it is not in a good state. Years of under
investment in maintenance have left the Palace of Westminster in a
terrible condition and it needs many billions spent on it to make it
safe and vaguely fit for purpose for the years to come. Fire wardens
must patrol the corridors twenty four hours a day because of the
high risk of fire, while there is much crumbling masonry which is
hazardous and many a burst pipe along miles of corridors. If you
take into account the dodgy wiring, poor ventilation, high heating
costs and inadequate working spaces, it all adds up to a sorry mess.
Arguments rage about what to do about it – even though all recognise it can’t be left as it is, there are polarised views in Parliament about the merits of refurbishing while MPs stay in situ, or whether to decamp completely to a different building.
It has itself become a metaphor for the state of British politics: broken, badly maintained, over-reliant on creaking symbolism and nostalgia. Nobody can agree a way forward and still the rats continue to scurry and make mischief.
The solution though, could be inspirational and sustainable. I’m thinking cardboard, taking inspiration from the magnificent cardboard cathedral built after the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, designed by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. We could have a beautiful, inspiring, cardboard building in which MPs could sit safely in a pedestrianised and secure Parliament Square for a few years. They could take comfort from their recycled content surroundings and draw energy for the vital work they really should be doing to tackle the climate emergency.
And with a fair wind, they could even recycle the building after they return to the modernised and rebuilt dear old Palace of Westminster...