John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, has warned that a failure to spend “not inconsequential” sums of public money on refurbishment could lead to parliament abandoning the site of the palace of Westminster.
Giving a speech to the Hansard society, Bercow, who has presided over Commons debates since June 2009, admitted that an estimate of £3bn for refurbishment of the deteriorating 19th-century building was “a realistic scenario”, but that it was probably “on the cautious side”. Though he added: “We can’t possibly be held to a figure at this stage.”
The palace of Westminster suffers from flooding, has crumbling stone work and contains asbestos. A 2012 study by the palace of Westminster restoration and renewal group, led by Dr Richard Ware, concluded that without renovation, the building would suffer irreversible damage and suggested that MPs could move to a different venue while repairs were taking place.
“It would be a huge pity if we decided that by the time we had reached the 200th anniversary of the vast fire which consumed the old Parliament and brought this one in to being we had to abandon this site and look elsewhere in order to serve the public interest properly”, Bercow said.
“Yet I will tell you in all candour that unless management of the very highest quality and a not inconsequential sum of public money are deployed on this estate over the next ten years that will be the outcome.”
Bercow argued that although he regarded himself as a reformer, he was not against tradition. He said he was very uneasy about the idea of decanting parliament to a different building, arguing that once MPs had moved out, it would be difficult for them to return. He stressed that parliament would have to take professional advice on the matter and he did not rule out moving parliament outside London.
In his speech, Bercow concluded: “This is a fabulous institution located in awesome surroundings. It must not have the ethos of a museum. It will require bold and imaginative managerial leadership to ensure that we are a parliament fit for purpose and that this Victorian legacy can be rendered practical for contemporary representation.”
In December, a committee of MPs went against Bercow’s recommendation and called for the recruitment of the Australian parliamentary official Carol Mills as the new clerk and chief executive of the House of Commons to be terminated and for the role to be split into two.
Bercow argued that he had sought to appoint Mills because she had both experience of working with parliamentary procedure and managing an organisation – something the role requires in a modern parliamentary democracy.