There’s something almost deliciously ironic about the UK government’s decision to publish its latest plans for the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster almost exactly ten years to the day since the MPs’ expenses scandal exploded.
This was a scandal about money, transparency and a culture of entitlement that brought parliament to its knees. And although the expenses regime at Westminster has undoubtedly been cleaned up, there still remains a lingering culture that smacks of elitism and a “we know best” attitude.
And yet the evidence suggests that in project after project the government has not “known best”. The evidence also suggests that large and complex infrastructure projects often succeed when public engagement is placed at the core and not banished to the periphery.
Given the fact that any project to renew and refurbish the Palace of Westminster involves a public building – no less than the home of British democracy – and public money, I would have thought that the issue of public engagement might have fostered more than a dim and distant flicker in the minds of the government.
But no. There will be no legal obligation for the sponsor board and independent delivery authority charged with delivering restoration and renewal (R&R) to seek input from the public. And we know this legal duty is absent because a joint committee of both houses recently asked for it – and the government has just rejected it.
The confusion in the government’s response borders on the bizarre. It notes: “We do not consider it appropriate that this [public engagement] should be part of the Sponsor Board’s role given its focus on overseeing and delivering the R&R programme”. And yet, just one sentence later, it states: “Nevertheless, we do agree that this should feature in the Sponsor Board’s considerations when they engage the public on the R&R”.
The risk is that without statutory clarity and legal backing, the issue of public engagement will simply get lost in what is already emerging as a fragmented and complex undertaking. Public engagement may well be undertaken – but by a range of bodies, in different ways, and in a messy and muddled manner, without any clear strategy or coherent masterplan. For some reason, I just can’t get the title of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s classic 1981 novel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, out of my mind. It just seems doomed from the start.
The whole way the restoration and renewal programme seems to be being handled is a bit like a cross between the gentle mockery of a Monty Python sketch and the biting satire of The Thick of It. You really couldn’t make it up.
The facts are relatively straightforward.
Fact 1: The Palace of Westminster is in a state of advanced physical decline and the risk of a “catastrophic failure” happening is now very real. In fact, water poured through the roof of the House of Commons during a recent debate.
Fact 2: The state of British democracy also appears to be in a state of advanced decline with the chances of a “catastrophic failure” also growing by the day. Anyone who doubts this claim would do well to reflect on the Hansard Society’s recent Audit of Political Engagement. This reveals jaw-droppingly low levels of public confidence in politics, and also the more worrying emergence of public support for a “strong leader” who is “willing to break the rules” when it comes to the normal checks and balances of democratic politics.
Fact 3: The recent fire in the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris not only underlined the need for urgent action to make safe the physical fabric of the building, but also led to a far broader and relatively positive national conversation about how to restore the structure while also renewing it to reflect the France of today and tomorrow, and not just the past. Surely there are lessons here for the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster.
Fact 4: As has already been noted, the evidence base reveals a positive link between successful major infrastructure projects and public engagement.
Fact 5: Someone, somewhere deep within the bowels of the Palace of Westminster, has looked at Facts 1-4 and decided to ignore the evidence and the world beyond the Westminster bubble and carry on regardless.
The public will ultimately pay the price. Not just financially, but politically, too. For it seems that a truly rare opportunity to reflect upon how “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us” – as Churchill noted – will be missed. When will they ever learn?