So complicated is the project, the logistics of decanting all who work within the Houses of Parliament, and the statutory hurdles to be cleared, it is envisaged that work could start no sooner than 2023.
There is also a significant issue with asbestos, widely found throughout the palace.
Here is what the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster has to say in its report about what work is involved and why it is needed. At the foot of the page is a video setting the scene.
Although the building is formally designated as a Royal Palace, those who work in it will be all too familiar with stories of flooding, power failures, fire hazards, freezing-cold rooms in the winter and boiling-hot offices in the summer. These problems are due to the age of the building’s M&E services, most of which are hidden away, either in the basements underneath the Palace, or behind walls, under floor voids, within ceilings and in vertical shafts known as risers.
Much of the M&E plant dates from the mid-20th Century; some of it dates from the Victorian era. Many of the systems reached the projected end of their lifecycles in the 1970s and 1980s. They have been patched up year after year, often with new cables and pipes laid on top of old, and with little knowledge of what the existing services are, where they go, or whether they are still live. So far the services have, for the most part, continued to work. But there is universal agreement among all the experts whom Parliament has consulted that the risk of a major failure is now unacceptably high, and it is growing. Repairing and replacing the M&E services is further complicated by the significant amount of asbestos present throughout the Palace. Asbestos is believed to be in almost every vertical riser, as well as in many plant rooms, corridors and under-floor voids. This adds greatly to the complexity, cost and timetable of much of the necessary work.
Complete and sudden failure of the M&E services – the kind that would require the Palace to be abandoned immediately – is a real possibility. This could be a single, catastrophic failure, such as the complete loss of electrical power to one of the Chambers, a devastating fire, extensive flooding, or a gas leak requiring a total evacuation. We could also see a series of smaller, incremental failures which, over a period of months or years, would seriously impede, or even put a stop to, normal Parliamentary work.
Complete replacement of the Palace’s M&E systems, which is now very pressing, is therefore the main driver for the Restoration and Renewal (R&R) Programme, but there are four other streams of work which will need to be carried out alongside the M&E refurbishment: dealing with the huge amount of asbestos present throughout the building, installing proper fire compartmentation and other fire safety measures, improving accessibility by bringing the building into conformity with modern standards of disabled access, and conserving the historic fabric of the building.
The Palace of Westminster is unique in its size, its position, its engineering and its security. The replacement of the M&E services alone will account for approximately 74% of the cost of the essential works. The other 26% (approximately) of the cost of the essential works is likely to be required for heritage conservation and other work required to meet a minimum acceptable outcome (for example, work to ensure that the Palace complies with legislation relating to public buildings). The historic nature of the Palace and the high quality of its fabric complicates any renovation work and requires careful planning and consultation with heritage stakeholders. The large volume of asbestos present throughout the building adds significantly to the cost and time required, especially as much of the contaminated space is very difficult to access. Moreover, the security requirements of the site also add considerably to the complexity and cost of the programme.