As ever, I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for his characteristically fabulous history lesson which, as so often, filled me with a warm glow at having the honour of representing my constituents in this place. He was right to highlight the importance of this place at the centre of our national story. The walls that surround us, the very fabric of the Palace of Westminster, are a central tenet of our democracy. The palace may feature on postcards, tea-towels, ceremonial mugs and—I am guessing—the screensavers of many parliamentary staffers across this place, but first and foremost it is a working office.
This is a meeting place for representatives from around our Union, and an open and accessible centre for constituents to lobby us as their Members of Parliament. It is, of course, a thriving melting pot of political plotting, which happens in every corner of the building, not just here in the Chamber. It is vital not to lose sight of the fact that even though the palace is a symbol of London and of our nation, it is home to thousands of members of staff who support our work. Those members of staff deserve to work in a building whose fabric is not crumbling around them, where they can walk around without fear of falling masonry, and where they do not have to greet the office rat alongside their colleagues in the morning.
Naturally, the restoration of a grade I listed building and a UNESCO world heritage site housing a working legislature comes with unique challenges that are not faced by other large-scale restoration projects. We must complete the works quickly in a cost-effective manner and, vitally, with as little disruption to parliamentary business as possible, because what is this place for if not for legislating effectively, and never legislating for the sake of it, but instead doing all within our power to make people’s lives better?
The restoration and renewal process has felt like a black cloud looming over Westminster for too long. Since the appointment of a Joint Committee six years ago, it seems we have had endless back and forth and um-ing and ah-ing about the best route to follow, with no clear decision making and a troubling lack of clarity and transparency. The Sponsor Body’s strategic review—itself due in October, but published in March—was full of redacted costings, including the capital costs of a number of potential decant locations for both this place and the other place. If the Sponsor Body is trusted to make operational decisions for a significant chunk of the restoration and renewal works, it must be open and honest about how much these things are likely to cost.
I cannot stress how important it is that the cost of the work is reduced as much as feasibly possible, with no gold-plating in sight, while ensuring that democracy can still be done and we can continue to change lives for the better. I know that the past year has been an economic whirlwind for my constituents right across Bishop Auckland, and I have heard far too many stories of lost incomes, despite the Government’s unprecedented support schemes. On that note, I have severe reservations about voting in support of giving a blank cheque of up to £6 billion or more against the backdrop of such intense economic hardship, with millions upon millions spent on a management report alone, before a single brick or cable has even been restored. It is completely unacceptable.
In Bishop Auckland, we are waiting patiently for the result of our bid for just £46 million from the towns fund, so just imagine what we could do with £500 million. I do have a shopping list, Mr Deputy Speaker, including restoring the A&E, a Toft Hill bypass and a new school in Shildon, but I will save that for another day for fear of getting into trouble.
After this Chamber was bombed during the blitz and the question turned to how it should be rebuilt, Winston Churchill said:
“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us I would like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form." Churchill understood that the form and fabric of the Chamber is an essential ingredient of the fiery debates we hold in this place.
For that reason I would like to make clear how important it is that, whatever decant arrangements we agree on, we do not see a permanent return of hybrid proceedings. While virtual proceedings have allowed some hon. Members to spend more time at home with their families and in their constituencies in a difficult year, I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree that not being physically in the Chamber is detrimental to the parliamentary experience. I heard the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) make this point even more eloquently than me earlier. Small things, such as the inability to intervene in virtual speeches, have led to a significantly reduced quality of debates.
I know that the proposals included in the Sponsor Body’s strategic review involve the demolition and complete redevelopment of Richmond House as the location for the decant, and these plans involve the construction of a number of, in my view, unnecessary and expensive add-ons. I may have spent only about 18 months here as a Member, but I would be more than happy to forgo access to new cafés, Committee Rooms, replica voting Lobbies and gyms if it meant that I was saving my hard-working constituents their taxes and stopping them being wasted. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) so eloquently outlined, we have heard alternative proposals, such as those from Mark Hines Architects, which has drawn up plans for a temporary Chamber of the same size and layout as the current one, saving over £500 million compared with the current proposals—and I am back to my shopping list.
However, I will admit that I do have some concerns about a full decant. That is not, as the shadow Leader of the House lightly alluded to earlier, because I would miss the place, though I would, but for two reasons: first, as I have already highlighted, because I believe we need the minimal possible disruption to our ability to do our jobs and to serve our constituents, but also because of the optics. In a time when the nation’s finances are stretched by the pandemic, how does it look to our constituents to demolish a 30-year-old building, only to construct a swanky new shiny one at vast expense just to be used temporarily?
My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) cannot be here today, but she asked me to represent her view in this debate, which is that we should seek both to reduce disruption to our democratic institutions and try to save our constituents money. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough highlighted a number of cost-effective possibilities, but my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton spoke to me about the possibility of shifting this Chamber into the House of Lords and moving the peers out to an alternative place, while ensuring that the democratically elected element of this place would continue to function as normal. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) has spoken eloquently about that, too.
As I highlighted earlier, given its UNESCO heritage site recognition, this place is of global significance. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher), who also cannot be here today. She believes that the decant works must be carried out as swiftly as possible. In her words, although I would never try to deliver them in her usual vivacious style and nor in her accent from what I consider to be the wrong side of the Pennines: “In the era of global trade deals an extended decant risks our global perception. I am of the view no longer than six months is tenable or we risk the following with our global trading partners, ‘Well, why would I use your company for my projects when you can’t renovate an old building to time?’”
On the point about the companies working on these projects, I agree with the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) and the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) that this should be a huge opportunity for businesses right across our country to contribute.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) highlighted earlier, the devastating fire at Notre Dame cathedral in 2019 acted as a tragic reminder that we must get the restoration and renewal works done as quickly as possible. If we waste time dithering and delaying, quibbling over how best to decant the Palace, not only does that risk spiralling costs to the taxpayer, but it increases the risk of a catastrophic incident such as what happened in Notre Dame. That is why, contrary to the view of the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), now is the time for this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) stated eloquently that since the restoration project was first actioned, circumstances have changed and the political make-up of this place has changed, and that is why it is right we have this debate today.
In conclusion, I implore the Sponsor Body and corporate officers of both Houses to come together swiftly to find a definitive path for the works. Members’ staff and most importantly the public need certainty over the timescale, costings and style of the works to rest in the knowledge that their democratically elected representatives will be able to do their duty to legislate, to scrutinise the work of Government and to keep the beating heart of democracy that our ancestors planted in this place alive and kicking for many generations to come.