Three lessons for restoration and renewal from our cousins in the Land of the Long White Cloud*
The announcement last year of the recommendation that the Houses of Parliament and the Lords be temporarily vacated to enable a major programme of 'restoration and renewal' of the buildings, seemed at times to slip almost under the radar. The reaction was largely muted; drowned out first by Brexit and later the US election.
With the new year, however, around 100 MPs are rebelling against the plans and demanding that more time be spent on evaluating the options, despite the fairly extensive feasibility report already produced by Deloitte.
Everyone agrees that something needs to be done; the disagreement is about exactly what, and how. It's a bold step to decant for a few years but one which seems to offer the greatest chance for a relatively swift and efficient completion of the works, and perhaps for a chance to rethink how we can make the home of our democracy fit for the 21st Century.
We are not the first democracy to face the need to do something radical to our parliament buildings
I was lucky enough to visit the New Zealand parliament building in Wellington just before Christmas. The main parliament house there was built between 1912 and 1922 (with some considerable delay as a result of WWI).
It might be slightly newer than our own Gothic Palace, but it too was built after fire ravaged the original wooden building. But the parallels don't end there and there are a number of points for reflection that might prove useful as the plans for Westminster develop and evolve.
1. Be bold - you can decant and do the major build
While the Palace of Westminster is under threat due to general dilapidation, it was the ever present risk of a major earthquake in Wellington that provided the impetus for a radical intervention to the structure of Parliament House and its neighbouring Parliament Library - also built in Gothic style in the late 1800s.
So what did they do? In 1991 MPs and staff moved out to a local parliamentary office block while engineers quite literally separated the building from its foundations to install base isolators that protect it in the event of a major quake - even more radical than the overhaul of electrics and plumbing which is the driving impetus at Westminster. Five years later they moved back into a restored and upgraded working environment.
2. You can successfully blend old and new
Although we have seen it everywhere from the British Museum Great Court to the Reichstag dome in Berlin, there still seems to be a curious reticence to incorporate even a hint of the modern into a restored Palace of Westminster.
In the New Zealand parliamentary precinct, the 1990s restoration programme gave the opportunity to introduce the Galleria where traditional and modern artistic works are displayed, and throughout the buildings there is a cohesive blend of the modern, classical and culturally traditional. Seats are all equipped for real-time translation, and use of tablets in debates is common.
3. Traditional doesn’t have to mean confrontational
Although it may not be up for discussion with regard to the Palace of Westminster, there are many who argue that a horseshoe-shaped chamber (see the EU or UN) is more collaborative and effective than our traditional arrangement of facing rows, which tends to encourage a more combative style of politics. If you were to walk into the NZ chamber it would look instantly familiar with its green seats and Speaker’s chair at the front. Yet the horseshoe shape also instantly changes the dynamic. Would that be such a bad thing?
The New Zealand parliament is by no means a bastion of 21st century wonder. It too suffers from a lack of digital technology in key spaces, such as the debating chamber, for example. But it does show that it is possible to modernise a building of similar age and tradition to Westminster with sensitivity and without losing its ‘essence’ and history, and that a temporary decant is not a disaster.
It was also interesting to observe the emphasis on education in the tour - about what democracy is, how laws are made, and the role of select committees. The NZ parliament also has a very different approach to their sitting days (a hangover from when it took a long time to travel from the extreme North or South of the country to Wellington), with intensive days on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and a shorter day on Thursdays - but the implications of that are for reflection another time.
Image credit: Michal Klajban, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.