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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

British MPs vote to leave Westminster during repairs

Commons will relocate to Whitehall during the £3.5bn programme of refurbishment

The palace of Westminster in London, one of the sites the trio plotted to attack.
The palace of Westminster in London, one of the sites the trio plotted to attack.

British MPs voted by a narrow majority on Wednesday night to leave the historic Palace of Westminster – where the Houses of Commons and Lords sit – to allow for a £3.5bn (Dh18.2) programme of refurbishment to take place.

Conservative and Labour MPs worked together to support an amendment to a motion by 236 votes to 220 to commit to works that will see Parliament moved to another site in Whitehall at some point in the middle of the next decade.

Motions that were supported by Downing Street and the leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, were voted down because they did not explicitly set out that there would need to be a move from the current location.

The proposals will now go to the House of Lords, whose members are expected to rubber-stamp the decision of their elected counterparts in the Commons.

The 19th-century Palace of Westminster building is crumbling, leaky, infested with vermin and riddled with asbestos. Fixing it will take years and cost billions, but experts say the alternative could be catastrophic.

After years of dithering, lawmakers finally cast their vote for change, although it was a close-run thing.

“This debate arguably should have taken place about 40 years ago,” Ms Leadsom told MPs during the debate on the motion to approve the project of repairs. She said the building “is in dire need of repair”.

Experts have issued increasingly urgent warnings about the state of the neo-Gothic Parliament building, one of London’s most famous landmarks and a Unesco World Heritage Site. Reports have sounded alarm bells about leaky roofs, temperamental steam heating, antiquated plumbing, crumbling stonework and ventilation shafts clogged with old pipes, wires and asbestos.

A 2016 report commissioned by parliamentary authorities said the building is at risk of a flood or fire that could leave it uninhabitable. It advised members of the House of Commons and House of Lords to move out for six years for renovations.

Caroline Shenton, former director of the Parliamentary Archives and author of The Day Parliament Burned Down, said that without major repair work, Britain could lose “the most iconic, famous building in the country.

“It could just simply be a utilities failure that brings the whole thing to a halt – the electricity goes, the water stops working, the loos stop flushing,” she said. “But something more catastrophic could happen.”

David Leakey, who retired last year as Parliament's head of security, has said that without major work, Parliament could be "another Grenfell Tower" – the London high-rise that burned down last year, killing 70 people.

Despite the warnings, lawmakers have put off making a decision. Some worry the public will resent the expense. Traditionalists are reluctant to leave the historic Commons and Lords chambers, the subsidised bars and restaurants and the riverside terrace with its magnificent view across the Thames.

Some modernisers think a permanent move to a new building – perhaps even one outside London – would make politicians less out of touch with the people they serve.

The seat of Britain’s government has stood on the same riverside site for centuries. The oldest surviving part of the complex, Westminster Hall, is 900 years old. But the current building, designed by architect Charles Barry, was built after fire destroyed its predecessor in 1834.

Ms Shenton said authorities had debated what to do about their aging building for years before the 1834 blaze. She hopes today’s politicians learn from their predecessors’ indecision.

“Nobody could make a decision,” she said. “In the end, the decision was made for them.”