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It’s time to bulldoze Westminster… literally

Parliament is falling apart and will cost billions to patch up. We should just flatten it and start again

The cost of renovating the Elizabeth Tower at the Palace of Westminster (which houses Big Ben) was originally estimated to be £29m, but in February 2020 it was confirmed that the total cost was nearly £80m. Photo: English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty

There comes a time when the only thing that will make you feel better is to blow something up – or at least to bulldoze it. This is unsurprisingly now my take on UK politics, after Rishi Sunak has decided that what the country needs, at a time of economic stagnation, no productivity growth and collapsing public services, is for absolutely nothing to change.

With a pending climate catastrophe, Sunak wants the UK to further delay action to reduce emissions. Businesses that might have invested to fit the government’s former renewable energy proposals now know that plans might be cut at any time.

Having approved, as chief secretary to the Treasury and then as chancellor, obscene amounts of spending for HS2 to tunnel through the Home Counties – as a sop to Tory backbenchers, at huge extra cost – Sunak has now decided to make sure that money is wasted by not building the much cheaper and much more useful bits of the line joining it to Leeds or Manchester.

Just in case anyone anywhere else in the country was making any kind of useful or positive change, like local councils reducing air pollution by creating low-traffic zones, Sunak has stepped in to say he’ll overrule even those changes. Rishi Sunak has staked the house on being a wet blanket, weighing the country down even as he slowly smothers it to death.

But if anything sums up the do-nothing attitude dominant in Westminster, it’s the collective inability of parliament to fix even the crumbling and dilapidated building in which they work. The Palace of Westminster needs 24-hour patrols to check for underground fires, is rat-infested, and has failing systems to keep sewage out.

One Westminster editor last week had to file her lead story while holding an umbrella as water flooded in from her office roof. But MPs are so determined not to miss out on this “historic” experience that they have delayed renovations for more than a decade, to the point where the project’s price tag has now ballooned to an estimated £22bn with a time span of 76 years. By way of contrast, the team led by Joseph Bazalgette built 1,300 miles of sewers for the whole of London in just 20 years.

At this point we have to concede something: Guy Fawkes was right. This is a building that needs to be blown up, even if almost all of the modern parliamentary estate isn’t even all that old – it’s largely Victorian or later. We can, in the interests of generosity of spirit, allow the occupants of the building to leave before we blow it up this time – but we absolutely should blow it up.

In public spending, billions doesn’t always mean a lot of money – we spend tens of billions a year on the NHS, for example, but that does a huge job across the country. However, £22bn on a single building is straightforwardly insane, and breaking the number down just goes to show how far the madness has gone.

Let’s imagine a wildly generous version of a scheme to compensate people working in the Palace of Westminster. In total, official figures suggest 5,000 people work on the Palace estate – MPs, peers, their staff, parliamentary staff, canteen workers, and so on. Imagine giving each and every one of them £1m as compensation for missing out on the privilege of working in a building that’s officially a death trap – as we could genuinely afford to do this.

There is one historic bit of parliament, and it’s Westminster Hall. So let’s make sure we keep that standing and functional as we bulldoze or blow up the rest of the estate. We can allow £2bn for that, as well.

We can now allow £5bn for a bespoke, amazing, world-leading parliamentary building constructed from scratch. This is a monumental budget for a new build – the contentious Scottish parliament building, with all of its cost overruns and controversy, cost less than £500m.

This is a ludicrously high figure for a new build, and we could almost certainly do it for less, but this is the gold-plated, Rolls Royce version of a plan. Building from scratch comes with other bonuses, too – parliament could be fully accessible, fitted out with modern equipment for streaming, digital voting and more, plus it could be built so as to be a model of what a zero-carbon parliament could look like. Britain could be world-leading.

More significantly, parliament would not have to be in Westminster. If MPs were really so attached to the area, even after their million each, that they still thought it was the only place worthy, they’re free to build it there – they’ll have plenty of land once the Palace is demolished. But they’d be free to build it anywhere they like – if they opted for Manchester or Leeds, for instance, they might even have a reason to rethink cancelling the crucial bits of HS2.

We could do all of this – the bung to parliament’s elected officials and staff, £2bn for Westminster Hall, and a £5bn new building – and still have £10bn more returned to the taxpayer versus the current £22bn price tag, around £300 for every single UK household.

Surely this is so much of a no-brainer that even Rishi Sunak, for whom “long-term decision making” seems to mean “hoping something magic will happen after I cancel everything” would go for it, even if the £1m sweetener is only pocket change for him. It’s the ultimate win-win-win, even accepting the venality of our politicians.

How sad, then, that even as I type it out and as you read it now, we all know it’s not going to happen. MPs will continue to fiddle until parliament either burns, or it slowly floods with shit.

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