Restoration and Renewal (Report of the Joint Committee)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:49 pm on 31st January 2018.

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Photo of Paul Beresford Paul Beresford Chair, Administration Committee 4:49 pm, 31st January 2018

I am aware that we are already one hour into this three-hour debate and that there are lists upon lists of people who want to speak, so I will not take interventions and will be as succinct as possible.

This building is probably more important to me than to many here, because I come from an ethnic minority Commonwealth background and was brought up looking at the photographs of this fantastic building. It is a real honour to be here, so it was a shock when I became aware of the disaster that lurks around us, below us and above us. I believe we need a full decant because of the nature of the building’s infrastructure.

Most Members will be aware that the House has a basement, which has a long passageway that runs the length of the building. There are 86 vertical chimneys running from that passageway and they were originally designed for ventilation. That of course means a fire could travel laterally and vertically extremely quickly. At present, the chimneys carry a mass of electrical services of varying age, many of them clearly defective. We have gas pipes, air conditioning conduits, steam pipes, telephone systems, communications fibres and, of course, a hugely overloaded sewerage system, which I understand the Leader of the House discovered to her mishap—possibly through her shoes—when she visited.

The infrastructure serves the whole building from end to end, moving up through the chimneys, and there is a small duplication in the roof. In the days before the dangers of asbestos were known, that dangerous material was literally and liberally splashed everywhere by brushes from buckets, but asbestos can be dealt with. The infrastructure dangers are other than asbestos.

The sewerage system consists of two large steel tanks that collect from a very large pipe that runs the whole length of the building. The system was put in place in 1888 and it is just waiting to repeat the bursts we have already had. If those bursts go over some of the equipment and infrastructure, the disaster will stare us in the face.

We try to make not only the sewerage system but all the other systems fit our demands. This means that we are pushing on a door that is solidly locked. We have to take the infrastructure out. Despite the suggestion, it is not likely that we will find bodies because we will be repairing and renovating the infrastructure, not the structure of the building. We will not be digging down to look for Guy Fawkes or one of his relations.

The point we have to understand is that the longer we wait, the risk of a catastrophic collapse of services nears upon us. If my memory is correct, the risk is rated such that by 2020 we will have a 50-50 chance of a catastrophic collapse of our services. That does not just mean fire; it also means a collapse of our electricity or gas services, for example. About a dozen fires broke out last year. It has been asked, “Why wait?” I support amendment (b) to motion 1—the amendment tabled by the Chair and deputy Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Meg Hillier and my hon. Friend Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown—because we need to assess the situation. We should not wait, but we have to assess before we go any further.

All the connected infrastructure needs to be removed and replaced. I am disappointed by the two motions. Motion 1 would kick the whole problem into the long grass and, to a major degree, so would motion 2. Both motions would mean extra expenditure when we are staring a full decant in the face. The thought that we could take out the infrastructure in half the building is engineeringly ludicrous. While we did that, we would have a long delay and more expense, and the other half of the infrastructure would continue to deteriorate while we sat and stared at the problem in the first half of the building.

Amendment (b) to motion 1, in essence, takes the Joint Committee’s recommendations on repair and renovation. As has been said, it is a bicameral, cross-party report. Many members of the Joint Committee were as cynical as anyone, including me, when they went in but, after the evidence, their conclusions were unanimous and conclusive. They took extensive advice from many who should and do understand the problems and solutions, and that is in the report and its conclusions.

I hesitate to use the word “experts” because it has become traditional to sneer at experts but, as a part-time dentist, if I have a patient with a very severe condition such as cancer, they want to see an expert. This building has a very severe and potentially fatal condition, so we need to take notice of the experts. Any method other than a full decant will vastly increase the costs, the time taken to do the works and the risk of disaster, and that risk is getting worse day by day, as I have said.

The security risk from a partial decant is obvious if one pauses to think about it. I have read the letters and papers from my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh. His amendment entails a partial decant. That has been rejected by the Joint Committee, by the Public Accounts Committee and by many, many other—if I dare use the word—experts. The approach the amendment sets out will, in essence, double the time for works, double the costs, increase the security risk, and increase the risk of fire and of a complete breakdown of the services in the other half. The thought of cutting a sewerage system—or the electrics or any of the other works—in half does not make sense because of the nature of the building. I am sorry to say this, but I would not give my hon. Friend—I hope he remains a friend—a LEGO set to play with.

I did say I would be as succinct as possible, so let me just say that it would be a severe derogation of our duty to not move expeditiously, and I urge support for the amendment standing in the name of the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the PAC and of many others, including myself.