The British Parliament building is an architectural masterpiece, a UNESCO World Heritage Site visited by 1 million people every year. It’s also a crumbling, leaky, asbestos-riddled structure at “real and increasing” risk of collapse, lawmakers said Wednesday.
In a hair-raising report, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said the seat of British democracy was “leaking, falling masonry and a constant fire hazard,” as well as riddled with asbestos forever. 2,500 locations. Inhaling asbestos fibers can cause lung diseases, including cancer.
“There is a real and increasing risk that a catastrophic event will destroy” the building before the long-delayed restoration work is completed, the committee said.
In the most urgent of a series of warnings spanning several years, the committee said renewal work was too slow and mostly cost “treatment” of the 19th-century building, at a cost of about 2 million pounds ($2.5 million) a week.
The committee criticized “years of delay” over the future of the parliamentary complex, known as the Palace of Westminster.
In 2018, after years of dithering, lawmakers voted to leave in mid-2020 to allow for several years of major repairs. The decision has since been questioned by lawmakers who do not want to leave; last year, the body set up to oversee the project in Parliament was disbanded.
In the meantime, the building is increasingly dilapidated. The roof leaked, century-old steam pipes burst, and chunks of masonry sometimes fell. The mechanical and electrical systems were last updated in the 1940s.
There is so much asbestos that its removal “could require an estimated 300 people working for two and a half years while the site is not in use,” the House of Commons committee.
And there is always the threat of fire. The committee said there have been 44 “fire incidents” in Parliament since 2016, and wardens are now on round-the-clock patrols.
Yet lawmakers have been reluctant to greenlight a more ambitious restoration plan. Some worry the public will resent the multi-billion pound price tag at a time when many people are struggling to make ends meet. Traditionalists are also reluctant to leave the historic building with its subsidized restaurants and riverside terrace with great views across the Thames.
The committee said “the cost of change will be high, but further delays will cost the taxpayer too much – inaction is not value for money.”
Opposition Labor Party lawmaker Meg Hillier, who chairs the committee, said there was “a real risk that the whole building would be destroyed in a catastrophic incident before the work was done, or maybe even started.”
The committee asked politicians and parliamentary authorities to put “a clear indication of the cost and timeline for doing this big job before it’s too late to do it.”
Parliamentary authorities said they were “continuing to work across the parliamentary estate to ensure the safety of those who work and visit here,” with several repair and restoration projects already underway.
Officials say they are “planning for a major and complex restoration of the Palace of Westminster to preserve it for future generations,” and members of the House of Commons and House of Lords are expected to vote on way forward this year.
History has a warning for those who live in Parliament. The current building, designed by architect Charles Barry in a neo-Gothic style, was built after a fire destroyed its predecessor in 1834.
Photo: The British Houses of Parliament, covered in hoarding and scaffolding as it undergoes repairs to the damaged building, in London in 2019. British lawmakers have warned that the country’s Parliament building is in “real and increasing” risk of destruction. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)
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