The text of the speech made by Lilian Greenwood, the Labour MP for Nottingham South, in the House of Commons on 16 July 2020.
I do wonder if our constituents will be shaking their heads in disbelief that we are devoting an afternoon to this debate when parliamentary time is so limited to discuss the severe threat to their lives and livelihoods. However, I am happy to be able to speak in this afternoon’s debate and to follow some of the hon. and right hon. Members who have already invested huge amounts of time, thought and energy into devising the plans for the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. I hope we will listen hard to their valuable contributions.
It feels particularly appropriate to be following the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). As the Chair of the Select Committee on Transport, I spent a great deal of time scrutinising his work as Transport Secretary and the decision making and delivery of projects to upgrade the UK’s transport infrastructure, much of which, like this building, was built in Victorian times and requires urgent work if it is to meet our needs in the 21st century. There are some useful parallels to be drawn and lessons to be learnt from the experience.
The first is that our short electoral cycles can make it difficult to take decisions about long-term projects that necessarily span several Parliaments. Incoming Governments have a tendency to re-examine, and sometimes reverse, the decisions of previous ones. Even when they end up reaching the same conclusions, additional time and uncertainty have inevitably added cost. I am afraid to say that reviews are sometimes undertaken to deliberately avoid or delay difficult decisions. We cannot afford to duck or delay restoration and renewal.
However, I welcome the Sponsor Body’s strategic review. It is right to re-examine how the restoration and renewal programme is carried out, especially in the light of covid-19, which has forced all of us to work in ways that some might never have thought possible and ushered in frightening economic impacts. We must ensure that the plans are the right ones, and that they are affordable and represent good value for taxpayers’ money, but we cannot afford to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It has already taken many years to devise the restoration and renewal programme and to set up the organisations to deliver it. We cannot afford to go back to square one because, as has been said, this place is falling apart faster than it can be fixed. As the House of Commons Commission said in October 2012:
“doing nothing is not an option.”
Eight years on, doing something has only become more pressing.
As the Prime Minister recognised in his letter to the review yesterday, there is a need to
“move as quickly as possible, both because of the risks associated with the current state of the building and the need to provide certainty on the way forward“.
As we have heard, there is a very serious risk of not only a major fire, which we know could spread rapidly through the building because of the thousands of empty ventilation voids, but flooding and falling masonry. We know that we must tackle the risks associated with the presence of asbestos; address environmental efficiency and sustainability; and transform access for disabled people, be they MPs, peers, staff or visitors. We also have a duty to preserve one of the UK’s most treasured historical buildings. It is a huge responsibility and we must not shirk it.
I wish to make two final points, returning to my reflections on fixing our transport infrastructure. The first is that doing the minimum does not work—our patched and potholed roads are testament to that. Reacting to each problem as it arises is inefficient, costly and disruptive. Long-term planned refurbishment provides better value for money and a better result. Secondly, trying to carry out substantial works without moving out of the building risks making the work much more difficult and costly, and risks serious disruption to parliamentary activities. I remember when Network Rail was upgrading Nottingham railway station in 2013 and it took the brave decision to undertake a five-week blockade to get the job done efficiently, closing the station completely, in preference to months of weekend and overnight closures. Thanks to careful planning and preparation, it was a huge success and changed the approach to upgrading the railway.
I look forward to listening to the remainder of the debate, particularly the contributions of my fellow Finance Committee members and that of my predecessor as Chair of that Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who has championed the work to preserve this place. I also look forward to the outcome of the strategic review in the autumn. This is vital work that will allow the House to make the right decisions for the future of the Palace of Westminster and the UK Parliament.