The Palace of Westminster is seen by many as a beacon of Western liberal democracy. It has survived great fires and wars, and seen countless elections and debates that have dramatically altered the course of our history.
Whilst it is an impressive building, with artwork from across the centuries and aspects of architecture not seen anywhere else in the world, it is slowly crumbling. Anyone who has seen the Palace recently will have noticed the near-permanent scaffolding, particularly on Elizabeth Tower (which houses the bell famously nicknamed ‘Big Ben’).
The whole Parliamentary Estate is in need of serious repairs - just last month, an MPs car windscreen was smashed by falling masonry from Norman Shaw North, which used to house the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police.
The Palace is a relic of our history; it has survived multiple catastrophes such as the Blitz, but one has to realise when to let go of the past. It’s clearly not fit for purpose as a modern 21st Century legislative assembly. Billions of pounds have been committed to repairing this building - billions which our MPs have decided to spend on a palace rather than improving our NHS or school system.
Parliament is being decanted anyway to allow for the works to take place, so our legislators are being moved into what will inevitably be a more modern building.
Parliament - as in our body of MPs and Peers - needs to be capable of adapting to the demands of the 21st Century. That means, at the very least, buildings which are accessible to people with specific needs like those in wheelchairs.
The Palace has around 31 lifts, many of which are extremely cramped, and often reserved for just Parliamentarians. It’s important that we don’t forget the many thousands of staff who work for MPs, Peers and who service the Houses.
We should use this as an opportunity to seriously consider permanently re-housing Parliament in a modern building, which is more accessible and less prone to falling masonry! Aside from the practical access need of a modern working organisation, I’d argue that we should adopt the model of the debating chambers of the European and Scottish Parliament: the hemisphere.
You can see from Prime Minister’s Questions that MPs always shout across the chamber at each other, from the Government benches to the opposition. In a hemisphere, that is not the natural order of things. It is clearer that legislators are relatively equal, rather than the “us vs them” atmosphere of the Chamber of the House of Commons.
The Palace could then be turned into a museum open full-time for the public, including the many millions of visitors who come to the capital because of our history. It is already open during the weekends for commercial tour operators to take around paying ticket holders.
Our tax money is constantly being sunk into the upkeep of a decaying, sometimes unsafe building, which has an extremely intense level of fire safety monitoring because of the huge risks posed by the creaking electrical and heating systems. As a landmark, it is entirely appropriate for public money to be used for its upkeep, not, however, as a place for modern law-making.
With the recent revelations around the Paradise Papers, it’s clear that the status quo prefers shielding the rich from paying tax, but then we continue to fund their vanity projects like Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Westminster and HS2, all examples of money that would be much better spent elsewhere.
We need to question whether we want to keep our MPs and Peers stuck in the past, or demand that they make the decisions necessary to carry us into a modernised, safer, more efficient and accessible democracy.