‘A tale of decay’: the Houses of Parliament are falling down2 months, 1 day ago
The long read: As politicians dither over repairs, the risk of fire, inundation or a spate of sewage merely increases. But fixing the Palace of Westminster might change British politics for good which is the last thing many of its residents want
Britain’s Parliament is broken. It is a flame danger. It is insanitary. Asbestos worms its route through the building. Many of the tubes and cables that carry heat, water, energy and gas were installed just after the war and should have been replaced in the 1970 s; some of them date from the 19 th century. The older the steam pipe become, the more likely they are to cracking or leak. When high-temperature, high-pressure steam enters the ambiance, it expands at velocity, generating huge, explosive energy. Such force could be fatal for anyone close; it could also disturb asbestos and send it flying through the ventilation system, to be inhaled by palace employees. The house caught fire 40 times between 2008 and 2012. Last year, a malfunctioning light on an obscure part of the roof caused an electrical fire that could have spread rapidly, had it not been detected at once. Whatever else happens in the Palace of Westminster, that great neo-Gothic pile on the Thames, one thing is constant. Every hour of every day, four or five members of the fire-safety squad are patrolling the palace, hunting for flames.
Away from the grand chambers of the House of Commons and House of Lords, away from the lofty passageways, away from the imposing committee rooms with their carved doorways, the palace is tatty, dirty and infested with vermin. Its lavatories stink, its drains leak. Some of the external stonework has not been cleaned since it was built in the 1840 s, and is encrusted with a thick coat of tarry black that is eating away at the masonry. Inside the building, intricate fan vaulting is flaking off, was affected by oozing rainwater and leaking pipes. Its Gothic-revival artworks are decaying: in the Lords chamber, the once-golden statues of the barons who signed the Magna Carta are now dull gray, pitted and corroded.
Beyond its country of disrepair, the building is all too obviously a remnant of a predemocratic age. It was constructed not to welcome its populace in, but to impress them with its fortress-like grandeur. It was designed when women were, at best, crinoline-wearing spectators of parliamentary life, consigned to the public gallery. With its chilly colonnades of sculptures of male politicians, its heavy, ecclesiastical furnishings and gentlemen’s-club atmosphere, it provides the perfect stage-set for Britain’s” very aggressive, very masculine, very power-hoarding republic”, as political scientist Matthew Flinders put it.