Westminster could be Britain’s next Grenfell Tower as the crumbling estate is at risk of a “major fire and loss of life” if vital repairs are not accelerated.
David Leakey, who is standing down as Parliament’s Black Rod after seven years, used his exit to ask MPs to “find the courage” to back a £3.5bn refurbishment of the “iconic” building.
It will be “an embarrassment and a national disgrace”, Leakey says, if they put its future at risk by delaying the renovation, regardless of the eye-watering cost.
The Government is ready to back a much-needed revamp of Parliament, but the price tag and where MPs will meet in the interim is fiercely dividing opinion.
He fears the building is at risk of a Grenfell-scale catastrophe if action is not swift. The building has already been declared a fire risk and caught fire an alarming 40 times between 2008 and 2012.
Some want Parliament to relocate to the Foreign Office while others think that the institution would benefit from being based outside London, in a city such as Manchester, Leeds or Birmingham.
Leakey told The House magazine: “This is a national, global, iconic building. It has got to be either knocked down and rebuilt, or it has to be preserved because it is so iconic, and that is the decision that has been taken – the right one, I think.
“Speaking as a taxpayer, on that assumption, there is only one option, and that is doing it quickly and in the most economical way and that should be the end of the matter.
“The politicians have a more difficult problem. They will see it from the perspective of what is described as ‘the Grenfell dynamic’. ‘If we couldn’t spend a few million on the cladding of a residential tower block, why should we be spending billions – and it will be billions – on refurbishing the parliament of this country?’
“This seems an unequal and disproportionate use of the taxpayers’ money, and I really understand that Grenfell perspective and the dilemma in which the politicians find themselves too.
“So here is the decision that politicians have got to take. They have got to find the courage to take a decision, the right decision, and stand by it, and justify it, and that will take some courage. Everybody probably has a finite pool of courage and you can exhaust your courage. I understand, therefore, that with so many tough current political issues on their plates, politicians need to pick carefully in which priorities to invest their courage.”
Leakey revealed plans for a “mass fire drill” and evacuation during sitting hours to prepare Parliament for a “Grenfell Tower incident”.
The last major fire at the Palace of Westminster was in 1834 when a few tally sticks were placed carelessly and sparked a massive blaze which destroyed all but Westminster Hall and some older parts of the structure.
Leakey said: “I know what the risks are here. Knowing in detail that the expert recommendation is that you should do this quickly and now, not slowly over time in phases, I know that is necessary in order to prevent another Grenfell Tower happening here.
“And that’s the point. If we don’t learn the Grenfell lesson, this building could burn down, just like it did in 1834 when there was a decade of delay and procrastination about how or when to refurbish the building. We will again be accused of sitting on our hands.
“What an embarrassment and a disgrace it would be to our nation if our Parliament suddenly disintegrated in a puff of asbestos because the steam pipes burst in the cavities around this building and the electricity and the IT infrastructure went with them.
“There could be a major fire, there could be loss of life. The state of the fabric of this building is a Red Risk ― the highest risk you can have in your risk register in terms of the likelihood of something happening, and of the impact of the consequences.”
Plans for an entire evacuation drill involving all of the Commons and the Lords are “under active consideration”, Leakey said.
“The time to achieve an evacuation will be dependent on how quickly you can motivate and energise people to get out,” he said. “Some are elderly, slow-moving or just resistant. Most MPs and peers won’t be told when it’s going to happen, just the party leaders and the whips. And the members and staff won’t know that it’s a fire drill.”
Millions of pounds are being wasted on keeping the building usable, said Leakey.
“We are spending, every year, millions of pounds on updating the fire safety improvements in the Palace,” he said. “We are doing this, knowing that in a few years all that wiring is probably going to be ripped out and replaced. We are patching up and pasting up all over the House in a completely uneconomic way. No commercial enterprise would dream of doing it this way.
“It is a very big decision to spend any money on the R & R of both Houses, never mind a short upfront burst of billions of pounds. But, in the meantime, millions of pounds are being wasted every year on work that is just palliative, for a problem that is going to have to be solved and paid for further down the line.”