On 13 July 2022, the House of Lords is due to debate the new mandate for the restoration and renewal (R&R) of the Palace of Westminster.

1. Background to the restoration and renewal programme

The Palace of Westminster requires substantial repair and restoration work. Following years of exploratory investigations, in 2016 a Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster published a report setting out options for the restoration and renewal of the Palace.

In 2018, the House of Commons agreed a motion approving the next step of work on restoration and renewal. This motion included an endorsement of the joint committee’s recommendation for a full decant of the Palace (that is, a total relocation of staff and members to alternative premises during the works).

In October 2019, the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 provided for a sponsor body to take responsibility for the programme of works. The sponsor body acted in shadow form from July 2018 until April 2020, when it was formally established upon the act receiving royal assent. The sponsor body’s strategic review, which also recommended a full decant of the Palace of Westminster, was published in March 2021. The strategic review’s remit was to consider what had changed since the independent options appraisal in 2014 and the Joint Committee of the Palace of Westminster report in 2016.

2. Initial assessment of the costs and schedule

In April 2021, the House of Commons Commission asked the sponsor body to assess the impact of maintaining a continued presence in the Palace of Westminster throughout the works. The sponsor body prepared an initial assessment of the implications for the cost and schedule of a continued presence of parliamentarians in the building.

In January 2022, the House of Commons Commission expressed concern about the conclusions of this analysis—estimated to be £7bn to £13bn—and schedule presented in the initial assessment. It asked the Clerk of the House of Commons to prepare a paper on “potential next steps”.

Also in January 2022, the House of Lords Commission expressed concern about the length of the decant period and asked the R&R programme to explore how it could be reduced. At the same time, the commission noted the significant impact on the overall cost and schedule of the options for the House of Commons to maintain a continued presence in the Palace of Westminster during the works, as well as the significant on-site health and safety, fire and security risks, and disruption to parliamentary business, that would result. Accordingly, the House of Lords Commission agreed not to endorse any further work on the continued presence options and to intimate its position to the House of Commons Commission.

3. A new approach: Joint meeting of the commissions in March 2022

In February 2022, the House of Commons Commission proposed replacing the sponsor body with a new department of both Houses which would be accountable to the Clerks of both Houses and the commissions.

At a joint meeting in March 2022, the commissions of the two Houses agreed a “new approach” to the R&R programme. The commissions agreed to seek independent advice and assurance on the new approach to the works, as well as on proposals to take forward the commissions’ decision to replace the sponsor body. They said they would seek a revised mandate for the works and changes to the sponsorship function from the two Houses before the summer recess.

The commissions said that this new approach would be guided by the following:

a) A primary commitment to health and safety, including fire safety;

b) Ensuring lessons from previous project activity are embedded in future project activity;

c) Works to improve mechanical, electrical and other essential systems should be prioritised;

d) A shorter life expectancy for the completed works should be considered (i.e. the infrastructure might require further renewal or ongoing upgrades in future decades rather than the current underpinning assumption to avoid this);

e) A wider range of options to decant members and staff from areas of the building affected by the works needs to be considered;

f) There must be a more integrated and cohesive approach between R&R works and other critical works on the Parliamentary estate;

g) Different levels of ambition for programme scope should be considered to ensure maximum value for money;

h) There should be a broader range and a greater number of options for delivering the works developed prior to down-selection of final options;

i) An incremental approach to the works and the funding should be considered, in line with standard practice for many major public works.

4. A new mandate and governance structure: Joint Commission report June 2022

4.1 New governance structure

On 14 June 2022, the commissions of both Houses published a joint report setting out their proposals for a new mandate for the R&R programme and a new governance structure to oversee the programme definition phase.

As proposed at the March joint meeting, the two commissions appointed an Independent Advice and Assurance Panel (hereafter, the independent panel). The independent panel proposed that for the remainder of the ‘definition phase’ covering the period until the approval of the strategic business case, the sponsor body should be replaced by a two-tier governance structure.

That structure would involve a statutory duty-holder replacing the existing sponsor body. In the parliamentary context, this will mean that the functions of the sponsor body will be transferred to the corporate officers of the two Houses—the Clerk of the Parliaments and the Clerk of the House of Commons. In practice, the functions that are transferred to the two Clerks would be undertaken on a day-to-day basis by a client team. The independent panel recommended that this team has a dedicated leader and senior responsible officer (SRO) reporting to the Clerks of both Houses.

The two commissions agreed with an option proposed by the independent panel that a joint department of both Houses be set up to accommodate the client team. Under this structure, existing sponsor body staff would be transferred to the new joint department under the Parliament (Joint Departments) Act 2007. The commissions added:

We further recommend that the transfer is undertaken with all reasonable speed in order to end the current period of uncertainty; and that where feasible, the day-to-day arrangements for transferring to a new department and a new governance structure, can proceed in parallel if not in advance of legislative measures.

Further, a client board and programme board would be created as follows:

a) The client board for R&R: the two Commissions will meet jointly as a client board for the programme, making critical strategic choices and recommendations, including reviewing the strategic case for the programme prior to seeking endorsement of it from the two Houses. The client board will meet at key points in the programme and consider recommendations from the programme board.

b) The programme board: a joint board of the two Houses with delegated authority from the Client Board (the two Commissions). It will have parliamentary and non-parliamentary membership, and will be the main forum of the programme, meeting to resolve critical strategic choices and priorities; down-select options brought forward by the delivery authority; resolve trade-offs and disagreements as needed to finalise the strategic case; and manage dependencies and conflicts. The programme board should meet at least monthly and should have the right composition to meet its remit, which includes providing advice and direction to the two Corporate Officers who will become the statutory duty-holders after the transfer into Parliament.

In practice, the client team will be directed by the programme board, but its SRO will report to the Clerks of both Houses as accounting officers. The delivery authority will continue to exist in this new structure, with the same remit of developing and delivering the work to the set scope, budget, and timescale.

The independent panel said the membership of the programme board should be kept “as small, as senior and as stable as possible to support its effectiveness, but as large as necessary to reflect the range of key stakeholders that need to be represented”. It suggested members should include (at a minimum):

  • the two Speakers (or their nominated delegates)
  • the leaders of both Houses (or their nominated delegates)
  • the Clerks of both Houses
  • the head of the client team
  • the head of the in-house services and estates team (IHSE)
  • the chief executive of the delivery authority
  • independent members with “relevant major programme experience”

The two commissions said the exact composition of the programme board remained to be determined “and the nomination of delegates may well be the best way forward”. They concurred with the independent panel’s recommendation that parliamentary members needed to be “senior, influential members who can support the long-term vision and help ensure the robustness of decisions taken by the programme board”.

While these new structures are being established, the commissions will lead on decision-making for the programme and have agreed to meet again jointly in the autumn to progress the development of options.

4.2 Development of options and funding

The joint report from the commissions notes that the delivery authority, in collaboration with officials from Parliament and the sponsor body, has examined how to give effect to the new approach agreed in March 2022. As a result, it is proposed that the programme develops potential options which:

  • include a range of possible scopes for the works to reflect different levels of ambition, from limited interventions focused on priority areas such as health and safety, through to wider enhancements to the Palace that offer operational or performance improvements in other areas, such as improved sustainability or visitor access
  • consider a variety of ways in which the works can be delivered, including minimising the time and extent to which members and/or staff are asked to move out of all, or any part of, the Palace, and into temporary accommodation
  • consider how a “shorter life expectancy for the completed works” could simplify design and speed up construction

For each option, the programme will set out the broad indications of the associated costs, timescales and risks, as well as impact on members and staff. The commissions also accepted the recommendation from the independent panel that the parameters to guide the new approach to the works should be accompanied by clear evaluation criteria linked to the programme’s long-term outcomes to support option assessment. The commissions accepted the initial criteria proposed by the independent panel.

The joint commission’s report also said that that the evaluation criteria for the delivery method should explicitly include health and safety risks to building users, including during the works. Indeed, it said that the new approach would mean a focus on safety critical works first, and a recognition of the need to commence those works as soon as possible. In particular, the following areas would be prioritised:

  • fire safety and protection
  • building services
  • asbestos
  • building fabric conservation

It said that prioritising these areas would not rule out work on other areas, including those set out in the 2019 act to which the programme must have regard. The joint report added this new approach would enable safety critical works to be commenced in advance of the wider restoration works being agreed.

On funding, the commissions endorsed the independent panel’s recommendation that the Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission should retain its current remit as set out in the 2019 act. It recommended that in future estimates submitted to it should cover only the costs of the delivery authority.

4.3 Decision-making, engagement, political advocacy and leadership

The independent panel noted that there was unanimous agreement that a “far more proactive approach is required to gain political acceptance” for the programme. It called on the commissions, Speakers, Leaders and Clerks of both Houses to work with the client board and programme board to agree how “more meaningful engagement across the many communities involved, strong advocacy and political ‘will’ can be achieved”. The commissions’ joint report endorsed the need for the client team to navigate the political realities associated with the programme. The report said that, while relevant major programme expertise must not be undervalued, neither must parliamentary knowledge and insight, adding that “the new client team will need to speak both programme and parliamentary languages”.

The report added:

We endorse and support the panel’s recommendation 4 which seeks more meaningful engagement between the Programme and the Parliamentary communities. We accept the role which it places on us as commissions in working both as the client board and through the programme board to agree how more meaningful engagement, advocacy and political support can be achieved. The domestic committees of the two Houses will also have an important role to play in advising the commissions on the discharge of their new functions.

The report added that it was “essential for the members of the programme board to act as political champions of the programme”, and to do so with the commissions’ support.

4.4 Planning for uncertainty: Securing a long-term end state vision for the programme

The joint commission’s report noted the challenges of operating in the parliamentary environment—described by the independent panel as “constantly changing and ambiguous”—which it said were addressed by the new governance structure and the new approach to the works. It said both were “explicitly designed for uncertainty and […] acknowledge[d] the need to anticipate and adapt to changing demands”.

The report also noted, however, that in an attempt to navigate the uncertainty, there was a parallel risk of going too far in the opposite direction and of operating in a way that is too short-term in nature, bringing with it inefficiencies linked to cyclical decision-making and piecemeal works, and failing to realise wider opportunities. It therefore said:

We believe planning for uncertainty is the right approach in the current circumstances. The need to re-evaluate the strategy periodically is borne out by the significant and far-reaching changes affecting the UK in terms of the fiscal, societal and political context since the Houses passed resolutions relating to R&R in 2018. At the same time, we recognise the need for an end-state vision to guide the development of proposals. We endorse the [Independent] Panel’s recommendation for the development of a long-term end-state vision during the programme definition stage, alongside an approach to the strategic case that enables periodic review of the delivery strategy.

The joint report stated that, subject to the agreement of the two Houses to the motions that will be tabled to give effect to its recommendations, the required legislative changes would be put in motion quickly:

[W]e would expect work to bring forward the necessary legislative changes to be initiated with a view to bringing the necessary regulations to the two Houses as soon as is realistically possible.

5. 2022 Public Accounts Committee report

On 29 June 2022, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee published its second report on the restoration and renewal programme.

The committee was highly critical of progress of the programme to date, calling it “unacceptably slow”. It added that the likely start date for major works has been pushed back by many years because of repeated attempts to revisit the basis of the programme. Although some urgent works could be undertaken earlier, it said there was still no clear indication of when major works may start.

The committee was also critical of the new approach agreed by the two commissions. It said:

Recent decisions to remove the sponsor body have created significant uncertainty and value for money risk. Nugatory spending, including £140 million to install temporary fire safety systems, is already evident. The uncertainty over progress and the lack of clarity over what will replace the sponsor body means skills and expertise critical to the programme are already being lost.

It added that in its view the decision-making around this change of approach had not been transparent:

Recent events have not demonstrated the transparency, openness, accountability, or evidence-based decision-making we expect. There is an unacceptable cloak of secrecy around the programme. The House authorities’ failure to manage asbestos incidents transparently, or with alacrity, underlines an approach which does not welcome scrutiny. Added to this, we saw no evidence to justify the House of Commons Commission’s initial proposal to abolish the sponsor body, a decision which reverses decisions made by both Houses of Parliament. Its suggestion that the House authorities oversee the works does not seem viable given their historical performance with Portcullis House and more recently the Elizabeth Tower renovation, which is almost triple its original £29 million budget.

The committee said that the programme was at a critical junction, given this backdrop and with what a restored Palace will look like still unanswered. It said that “Parliament’s accounting officers need to fulfil their role by setting out publicly what they can feasibly deliver”. The committee added that transparent, evidence-based decisions must be made quickly to “avoid further unnecessary cost to the taxpayer and prevent putting the safety of this iconic building and those that work in it and visit it at even greater risk”. The committee concluded:

Nearly 200 years ago a fire destroyed part of this building—we do not want it to take another catastrophic incident to finally galvanise action and focus minds.

6. Further reaction to the new approach

Writing recently in the House magazine, member of the House of Commons Commission Sir Charles Walker said:

The sponsor body’s recent proposals for restoration and renewal were estimated to cost between £7bn and £13bn, take up to 28 years to deliver, and not starting until 2027 at the earliest. Whilst vital work is required, it must be done in a way that is sensitive to the current economic realities. Our ambition is to provide value for money, while fulfilling the needs of members and other users of the Palace.

If the joint commission proposals are approved by our colleagues in both Houses, it will allow a wider range of options to be developed for how the works should be carried out. We are not at this stage asking for any decision to be taken on whether the Palace should be fully vacated while work is underway, nor are we asking members to consider budgets for the programme.

Similarly, Leader of the House of Commons Mark Spencer said in an interview with Radio 4 that there had been “a bit of a disjoint between parliamentarians and the project itself”. He added that the work needed to be better co-ordinated and that by taking the sponsor body in-house a long-term plan could better be achieved.

Other parliamentarians have been more critical of the proposals. Chris Bryant, Labour MP and a member of the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster in the 2015 Parliament, tweeted:

The decision to abolish the restoration and renewal board and bring the whole scheme in-house is wrong-headed. It smacks of silly political interfering just like in the 19thc. We are wasting money hand over fist and putting a UNESCO site at risk.

Speaking in the debate in the House of Lords on the co-location of both chambers on 16 June 2022, former Lord Speaker Lord Fowler (Crossbench) said:

We started this process in 2014. A few days ago, eight years after that date, we had a new document, Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster: A New Mandate. So we start again.

Basically, my view is this: for goodness’ sake, let us stop messing about. We need to keep to one course. What we do not want is to make this a botched project that shows the world—and make no mistake, the world will be watching our progress on this—how difficult it is for this country to make decisions and stick to them.

In the same debate, Lord Best (Crossbench), a member of the sponsor body, said:

The R&R programme, as initially envisaged and as set out in the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019, will not now proceed. In place of a comprehensive programme of major works, the delivery authority is being asked to bring forward a selection of more modest ideas—an incremental approach to the works—which probably means a series of consecutive minor upgrades. This is fundamentally different from the previous strategy.

The proposed presentation of a comprehensive, costed business case for a vote by both Houses, scheduled for the summer of next year, is put back. The plans for decanting both Houses so that extensive works could proceed have not been progressed for several months. I detect no progress in persuading MPs of the necessity to move out to facilitate the mammoth task of upgrading the basement’s frightening tangle of sewerage pipes, electrical cables, et cetera, and I see no prospect for many years of Members of either House or both decanting anywhere voluntarily.

Responding for the Government to the debate, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office Lord True said:

A number of noble Lords referred to restoration and renewal, opened by my noble friend Lord Fowler. Obviously, this is really a matter for Parliament and not for a government minister to respond to, but let me address some of the points made. As noble Lords will be aware, the joint commission has now published its report and it is currently planned—and this is a matter for your Lordships—to seek a revised mandate from both Houses before the summer recess. Parliament is now reflecting on the future of the R&R programme. As noble Lords have noted, the question of decant will now have to be reviewed, but such broader questions are for consideration at a later date and are not part of the decisions of the joint commission that will be put to the House before recess. […]

Both commissions on R&R were concerned, as my noble friend Lord Fowler and the noble Lord, Lord Best, referred to, by the proposals brought forward by the sponsor body, which deviated substantially from the initial estimates relating to cost and schedule. The independent assurance panel made it clear that the current model is unlikely to be viable.

On bringing the scheme in-house, the commission’s proposals are intended to ensure that necessary work can be started sooner and better meet the needs of the parliamentary community. There is the prospect of bringing certain projects forward more quickly than current projections. […]

On restoration and renewal, let me be clear and repeat that this is a parliamentary programme and decisions on how to proceed are for Parliament. However, I hope we can agree that it is in the interests of the Palace of Westminster and the British taxpayer if both government and Parliament work together.

As noted in recent House of Commons Library analysis, Dr Alexandra Meakin, who has written extensively on R&R, highlighted four issues following the publication of the report from the two commissions.

  • Although both Houses had previously voted to decant from the Palace in order to complete works, the new approach will develop options which include partial or no decant.
  • The report confirmed the grounds on which the sponsor body was deemed to have failed, Dr Meakin quoted: “confidence within Parliament in the existing governance structure had been lost to such an extent that change is necessary”.
  • “But was the reason the sponsor body lost confidence of Parliament because they kept telling MPs that full decant was the safest, quickest and cheapest way to repair the Palace? If so, abolishing the sponsor body won’t stop that from being true …”.
  • The final paragraph of the summary “is a super important part of the report: a commitment to political leadership from the commissions of both Houses. Not only is this vital for R&R to succeed but lack of clarity over the role of the HoC Commission has been a long-running issue (in so many ways)”.

The following articles have also examined the restoration and renewal programme in the wake of the new mandate:

7. Read more

For further information see the following:


Cover image by simonedge1108 from Pixabay.