The House of Commons may have to relocate beyond its historic home at the Palace of Westminster to a temporary home in a nearby Whitehall courtyard as part of plans to refurbish parliament during the next decade.
MPs would sit a few hundred metres up the road in a specially built chamber in the courtyard of the Department of Health in the most radical proposal for the refurbishment of the Palace’s ageing buildings, an option that appears to be increasingly finding favour at Westminster.
Chris Bryant, the shadow leader of the Commons, briefed Labour MPs on Monday night on the emerging thinking of a cross-party committee of MPs and peers, who are in charge of drawing up plans for the refurbishment of parliament. Chris Grayling, the leader of the Commons, is due to outline the cross party committee’s thinking to the Conservative’s backbench 1922 committee in the next week.
No final decisions have been made as the committee studies and amends a report by Deloitte and Aecom from 2014, which made a series of recommendations for the total refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster.
But the committee is expected to make a recommendation to MPs and peers before the Easter recess, amid growing support for the so called full decant option.
This would see the two chambers of the House of Commons and House of Lords closed and relocated to the temporary venues just outside the old confines of the palace.
It is understood that there is little support for relocating out of London on the grounds that ministers, who will continue to be based around Whitehall, need to be accountable to parliament.
There is less certainty over where to move House of Lords. Peers may have to move across Whitehall to occupy courtyards in the Treasury or the Foreign and Commonwealth office, as part of the full decant proposal, which would see the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster entirely vacated for six years at a cost of £3.52bn. Refurbishment would begin after the 2020 general election.
The Deloitte report outlined a series of other options, including a rolling programme of repairsthat would keep as many existing facilities open as possible, but could take 32 years and cost £5.67bn.
David Cameron signalled his support last July for a programme of refurbishments, which would see MPs sit in the House of Lords while their own chamber is refurbished.
MPs switched to the Lords between 1941 and 1950, when wartime bombing severely damaged the House of Commons. The prime minister has previously noted that Winston Churchill made some of his most memorable parliamentary speeches in the Lords chamber.
Supporters of the full decant option say it would be the cheapest and safest option for the refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster, which is in a dangerous condition – described as a death trap by one source familiar with the work of the committee.
Under one idea, the department of health would move out of its offices in Richmond House on Whitehall to allow for the construction of a temporary structure in the courtyard, which would serve as the chamber of the House of Commons. Some MPs and peers believe that Richmond House is an attractive option because it is contiguous with the current parliamentary estate.
It stands next to the main set of buildings housing MPs’ offices – Portcullis House, 1 Parliament Street and Norman Shaw North and South – that would be kept open if the heart of the Palace of Westminster is closed down.
The Richmond House courtyard would also meet security concerns. Most MPs would be able to vote in the temporary chamber without leaving the parliamentary estate. The committee has also been told a temporary chamber in the courtyard would be heavily protected from a possible missile attack from the River Thames by the two Norman Shaw buildings – the former headquarters of New Scotland Yard.
The committee is examining proposals to build a temporary chamber for peers in the treasury circle – scene of Norman Lamont’s declaration in 1992 that Britain was leaving the European Exchange Rate Mechanism – or in the courtyard of the foreign and commonwealth office.
There are more practical difficulties with these options because a tunnel would have to built under Whitehall, or a special bridge erected, to allow peers to move from the remaining part of the estate to their temporary chamber.
Margaret Beckett, the former Labour foreign secretary, told the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday night that she feared parliament might never return to the estate if the full decant option is followed.
Ben Bradshaw, the former culture secretary who attended the PLP, strongly endorsed the full decant option, which also appears to have the support of shadow Commons leader Bryant.
Bradshaw said: “The cheapest option of both Commons and Lords moving out while the work is done would seem to me to be a no brainer. It is not only on cost grounds but it is also the option that gives us the best chance of getting a parliament that both works for its staff, MPs and for visitors.”
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