Briefing for MPs: Designing for Democracy

Posted on January 25th, 2018 by Matt Flinders

The Crick Centre has published a briefing for MPs ahead of the House of Commons debate on the Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal on 31st January 2018. The briefing is based on research from the Crick Centre’s Designing for Democracy project.


  • The Palace of Westminster is at risk of a catastrophic infrastructure failure. For years successive governments and parliaments have delayed necessary repairs. This has placed the building—which as the Public Accounts Committee emphasised “belongs to the people and the nation and a symbol of our democracy”—at serious risk.
  • It is over 500 days since the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster reported (on 8 Sept 2016), and stated “it is essential that the R&R [Restoration and Renewal] Programme now proceeds to its next stages without delay”. The delay in tabling this debate and vote has incurred substantial additional cost and has increased the risk to the building, and our heritage.
  • There are two motions, and a number of amendments to be considered today. The first motion effectively axes the R&R programme, and commits the House to continue the make do and mend approach which has led to a backlog of maintenance and the critical state of the infrastructure today. It will increase the already significant risk facing the building and would demonstrate a failure to address the state of the building. By voting instead for amendment B to the first motion, or for the second motion, the House authorities can to proceed with the preliminary steps to undertake the necessary programme of repairs, through the establishment of a delivery authority to develop up a business case.
  • Although criticism from the media and sections of the public is inevitable, R&R should be embraced and promoted as a rare opportunity to ‘design for democracy’ in a manner that blends continuity and change. As part of this approach it is vital to hold a national, public conversation; based upon a firm and independent evidence base, and that injects fresh ideas into the design process.
  • Officials, experts, and parliamentary committees have repeatedly underlined the scale of the risk of catastrophe. If MPs and Peers fail to use this vote to take decisive and clear action they must bear the responsibility for the inevitable fire, flood or infrastructure failure that the further inaction, as a result of the first motion, may well facilitate.
  • There is never a good time to spend large amounts of money on political institutions but the R&R programme is not about just politics—it is about democratic politics. The costs should be seen as an investment in democracy and one that will, especially if the public are embedded into the process, yield a significant return for future generations.

Download a copy of this briefing paper.

Why is the Restoration and Renewal (R&R) programme necessary?

The Joint Committee’s report notes that many Members were extremely sceptical of the need for the R&R programme when the inquiry started. The Committee found, however, that the “weight of opinion provided to us by experts has made it impossible to ignore the fact that the Palace of Westminster does now need a significant renovation programme, and that the works are becoming increasingly urgent”. This risk continues to increase. The House of Commons Commission Administration Estimate Audit and Risk Assurance Committee reported in July 2017 that “the continued failure of the two Houses to make a decision in principle on the Restoration and Renewal Programme increases exposure to fire”. There have been 60 fires in the Palace since 2008 (Lord Fowler, The Times, 25 August 2017).

The vast majority of the identified capital expenditure is to be spent on refurbishing essential services such as water, heating, electricity, and sanitation, in addition to removing asbestos from the building. The mechanical and electrical (M&E) infrastructure is dangerously antiquated: the 2015 Independent Options Appraisal concluded that ‘the risk of catastrophic failure is increasing… a major failing of the existing service infrastructure is inevitable’.

The widespread building work within the Palace (most notably to the Elizabeth Tower and Westminster Hall) may give the impression that the R&R programme has started already. This is incorrect: while some repair work can be carried out under the contracts let by the House of Commons Commission in July 2017, this is not addressing the major risk of the outdated M&E infrastructure in the basement of the building. Indeed, the Joint Committee made clear that this necessary work cannot be carried out around the work of each House, or during recess periods, given the limited time and the possibility of recall, ruling out the approach proposed in the first motion.

In addition to this real and urgent risk, the Palace is failing to meet the needs of many people who use it, whether on a daily or occasional basis. Public access and facilities—most notably for people with disabilities—is unacceptably poor.

More broadly, although large sections of the public admire the building, some people feel disconnected from the Palace of Westminster, and consequently Parliament itself, and not welcome. A sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’ creates an artificial divide that can have far-reaching consequences if not challenged by a clear responsiveness capacity. At present levels of democratic inequality and disengagement from traditional forms of political expression seem to be growing.

Wires in the basement of the Palace of Westminster. Image via the Restoration and Renewal website

A new building?

The idea of constructing a new, permanent parliamentary building away from the Palace was ruled out by the House of Commons Commission in 2012. The 2012 Pre-Feasibility Report had concluded that the cost of such a new building would be substantial, and noted that the cost of maintaining the historic Palace would still fall to the Treasury.

While there has been some press comment calling for both Houses to be moved away from London permanently, we do not view this as viable. Separating the Commons and Lords from the Government geographically could reduce both the relevance of Parliament and the ability for Members to hold the Government to account.


The estimates of capital expenditure in the 2014 Independent Options Appraisal range from £3.52bn for a full decant, to £5.67bn for a rolling programme of works. The Joint Committee has stressed that these figures are not precise costs but “high-level estimates of the broad orders of magnitude which each scenario might cost”. Both Amendment (b) to the first motion, and the second motion, will commit the Delivery Authority to make a full assessment of the costs and benefits for Members to then consider.

The delays to date have incurred substantial, unnecessary costs. The answer to WPQ 3465 (2017-18) stated the estimate of “the inflationary impact on capital expenditure of a delay to the construction start date” as “£78m to £167m per annum”. Further, this inaction increases the possibility of the House facing the significant cost of either a catastrophic failure, or successive failures of the infrastructure of the Palace and an emergency decant.

It is important to further note that democracy has costs. Bernard Crick argued in In Defence of Politics (1952) about the importance of democracy (and therefore the institutions that support it) having a value almost beyond any price. The costs of R&R should be seen as an investment in democracy and one that will, especially if the public are embedded into the process, yield a significant return for future generations.


The proposed governance model is of a Sponsor Board (including a cross-party composition of MPs and peers) sitting above a statutory delivery authority. We would recommend that the Sponsor Board regularly reports to both Houses to avoid scope creep, maintain strong governance and ensure accountability to Parliament.


The Amendment (b) to the first motion endorses the recommendation of the Joint Committee who concluded that “that a full decant of the Palace of Westminster is the best delivery option in principle”. This was echoed by the Public Accounts Committee in March 2017.

The second motion will allow the new Delivery Authority to assess the business case for three options: full decant, partial decant and a new option of keeping a “parliamentary foothold” in the Palace. It is worth noting the Joint Committee’s concerns about a partial decant, which, they argued, could “combine the worst of all options”; as Parliament would be operating alongside a major building site for over a decade: not only disrupting its work, but increasing security and health and safety risks, and at a much higher cost than the full decant option. Any partial decant would also require a new network of mechanical and electrical plant to be constructed prior to the start of any building work, in order to serve the remaining House. The longer programme times required by the rolling programme or partial decant means that there is an even greater risk of catastrophic failure of the existing M&E infrastructure before the programme is complete, which could require a full move out of the Palace in any event. While it is understandable that Members may not wish to leave the Palace temporarily, they have a duty to the taxpayer to choose the delivery option that offers the greatest level of feasibility and value for money.

Inside the Palace of Westminster. Image courtesy of the Restoration and Renewal website.

A Restored and Renewed Parliament

At the heart of the R&R programme is the ambition to deliver a parliament that is ‘fit for the twenty-first century’. But exactly what this should look like has not, as yet, been discussed or decided. We believe that a public conversation that reaches beyond London and the south-east is an essential part of R&R.

‘Muddling through’ in terms of making ad hoc adaptations to the building is unlikely to satisfy anyone. Although not very British in terms of historical precedent, R&R demands a focus on strategic and coherent constitutional design in order to minimise financial risk and maximise successful completion. A focus on embedding the physical footprint of the building with a rejuvenated digital footprint is one way of responding to competing pressures. Adopting an emphasis on flexibility in terms of seating or room use, for example, would also create new opportunities.

Further information

In April 2016 the Sir Bernard Crick Centre launched Designing for Democracy—a major, inter-disciplinary research and public engagement programme which is examining how the design of our parliamentary buildings affects the way our politicians act and how we view politics. The project is led by Matthew Flinders, Director of the Crick Centre, with the support of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

To discuss this briefing paper or the Designing for Democracy programme please contact Matthew Flinders: / 07773 144 155