MPs must not wait until the Palace of Westminster burns down to begin rebuilding it, Andrea Leadsom has warned.
The Commons Leader said she was “desperately keen” to “crack on” with introducing legislation to establish independent statutory bodies to provide governance for Parliament’s restoration work.
In an interview with the Press Association, she cautioned against accidentally allowing history to repeat itself, after a fire destroyed much of the old Palace of Westminster in 1834, forcing it to be rebuilt in the 1840s.
Mrs Leadsom said: “As time passes, the cost of restoration and renewal go higher – this is a World Unesco grade one listed site.
“It’s an incredibly iconic building around the world and of course the last time it got rebuilt was because it caught fire and burnt down, so we don’t want to wait until that point, so we do need to take action and that’s what we’re doing.”
She stressed that there were “significant measures” in place to ensure Parliament conforms to the necessary fire regulations, but said a “lot of money” needed to be spent improving drainage, sewage, wiring, plumbing and heating.
Mrs Leadsom also stated her desire for the work to “significantly improve” accessibility for people with disabilities visiting the historic building.
She said: “For a 21st-century Parliament we have some very major problems with accessibility for people with wheelchairs, for people with hearing difficulties.”
She also suggested that the restoration work, which will see MPs decant to a rebuilt Richmond House on Whitehall as a temporary chamber from the mid-2020s until the 2030s, could be used to enable school groups to practise debating.
Mrs Leadsom will give evidence to the parliamentary committee on restoration of the Palace of Westminster on Wednesday, which is examining the draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill which aims to “professionalise” the sponsor body and the delivery authority so they can take the work forward and carry it out independently of Parliament.
She said she “expected” to see the legislation introduced in the current parliamentary term, though warned that a change in Government could delay the Bill – but said she believed there was cross-party support for action.
“I would hope that because it’s a parliamentary project, because parliamentarians have voted to get on with it, that it won’t become a political issue and that governments of all colours will continue to support it.
“Because the time it will take to finish the restoration and renewal and to be back in here, we’re looking at 2030 or beyond so it’s highly likely that there’ll be different governments looking at this.”
She said the work had been needed since after the Second World War, adding: “The reality now is that we’re at a very serious stage where we’ve had falling masonry which I’m glad no-one has been hurt by, and health and safety is absolutely key to everything we do here.
“But there are issues around fire safety, there’s certainly issues around sewage and burst pipes and wiring and people can’t even get WiFi when they are walking around the Palace, and we’ve got scaffolding everywhere.
“So there’s no doubt it’s way past time that we got on with this.”
Last year, both Houses of Parliament backed plans to move out during the multibillion-pound restoration programme.
Mrs Leadsom told the committee on Wednesday morning that she hoped the Elizabeth Tower, which houses Big Ben, would be open to the public despite the restoration work on the rest of the palace.
She said the work could lead to reforms of parliamentary processes, as well as the potential to improve media facilities on the estate, noting the recent harassment of journalists and MPs on College Green.