Parliament must keep grip on restoration costs, says watchdog | UK news

MPs and peers in charge of parliament’s restoration have been told by Whitehall’s spending watchdog that they must ensure that costs do not slip amid deepening concerns about public finances in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has called on the group tasked with the Palace of Westminster’s multibillion-pound overhaul to take a firm grip on the process. The budget for Big Ben’s construction works alone rose by 176%, auditors said.

In a report released on Friday, sponsor board members, who took control of the repair programme this month, have been urged to come up with a clear plan so they are not thrown off by competing interests, especially among MPs.

Auditors have also disclosed that an estimated £149.6m to develop the business case in 2020-21 was rejected by the palace’s authorities partly because of concerns about the impact of the pandemic.

Formally appointed on 8 April, the board is due to submit a business case, which will include a budget range and full details of the work involved, by 2022.

Before parliament voted in 2018 to approve the renewal works, which will entail decanting the whole building for at least six years, MPs had pushed rival plans that would have seen only a partial vacating required, forcing builders to work around the Commons schedule.

Alternative ideas have been raised again since the coronavirus outbreak. The former public accounts committee chair Sir Edward Leigh said “saving public money” should be the primary concern and last month called on the sponsor board to consider temporarily moving MPs to the House of Lords, rather than leave the premises entirely.

Under the agreed plans, MPs are expected to move to Richmond House, the former home of the Department of Health, while the Palace of Westminster – with a floorplate the size of 16 football pitches and containing 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases and three miles of passageways – is being restored.

Auditors said the £4bn cost previously reported was likely to be a “median” figure, with the final outlay on the Unesco world heritage site expected to be higher. Some estimates put the final bill as high as £6bn.

Concerns over coronavirus and the planning application for Richmond House have led to a rejection of an estimate of £149.6m to progress the business case in 2020-21.

The report said: “The House Commissions did not approve this estimate owing to concerns about the potential impact of both the Covid-19 pandemic and the Richmond House planning application. They approved expenditure for up to three months (to the end of June 2020) of £27.5 million.”

Chris Bryant, the former shadow leader of the house, said the rejection amounted to another delay on the project. “Procrastination will one day undo us when the building suffers catastrophic failure,” he said.

Parliament authorities spent £369m maintaining the estate between 2015-19 and have predicted that costs will increase further without significant restorative works, with jobs identified including removing asbestos from 1,000 locations and repairing falling masonry.

In the past five years alone, 29 incidents could have led to a fire, the report found.

Auditors said the sponsor body should look to understand the “inherent unknowns” in restoring such an old heritage building, which will involve a number of specialist trades, citing the example of replacing the 3,800 unique bronze windows.

MPs and peers in charge of steering the works should learn from the Elizabeth Tower restoration project, where work is ongoing to restore the famous structure that houses the Big Ben bell and landmark clock faces, the report said.

Sarah Johnson, chief executive of the parliament’s restoration and renewal sponsor board, said her team is committed to ensuring “value for money” during what she called the “most complex heritage project ever undertaken in the UK”.

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