Westminster fire risk ‘huge’ says Corbyn after Notre Dame blaze raises fears

The fire at Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral has raised concerns about the Palace of Westminster Credit: Jonathan Brady/PA

The Palace of Westminster is at risk of a “huge” fire, Jeremy Corbyn warned after the blaze which ripped through Notre Dame heightened concerns about the state of the home of the UK Parliament.

Politicians have acknowledged that action is needed to safeguard the Houses of Parliament but have spent years wrangling over the best way to proceed and baulked at the billions of pounds required to restore the building.

Labour leader Mr Corbyn said the state of the Palace of Westminster was “very poor”.

The “restoration and renewal” programme is not expected to start in earnest until the mid-2020s after MPs and peers voted in early 2018 to leave the historic building to allow the work to be carried out.

Mr Corbyn said the blaze at Notre Dame was “very, very sad” but praised the work of the firefighters in tackling it.

He said: “You can see the majesty and beauty of that building and to see it destroyed is devastating, I think, for everybody in Paris and indeed around the world, because you see beautiful buildings like that and think of the beautiful buildings we’ve got in this country.

“If any of those were destroyed in fire, how would we feel about it?”

He said the fire was a warning for MPs about the state of the Palace of Westminster and major work would have to be done.

He said: “The state of the building is very poor in Westminster and a fire risk is obviously huge with a building that has so much wood within it.”

Labour MP Chris Bryant, who sat on a joint committee of parliamentarians from both Houses which examined the issue, said: “We have taken far too long already putting our fire safety measures in place.

“Parts of the Palace are as old as Notre Dame and we must make sure that every fire precaution is taken as the major work goes ahead. God knows we’ve had enough warnings.”

The 2016 joint committee report noted “a substantial and growing risk of either a single, catastrophic event, such as a major fire, or a succession of incremental failures in essential systems which would lead to Parliament no longer being able to occupy the Palace”.

Fellow Labour MP Anna Turley said she was shocked by the state of the building when she was first elected to Westminster in 2015.

“On my induction my ‘buddy’ was an engineer,” she said. “He showed me the electrics – it looked a health and safety disaster (and fire) waiting to happen.”

The Notre Dame blaze has focused attention on the fire risks at the Palace of Westminster Credit: Thibault Camus/AP

Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington, effectively Theresa May’s deputy prime minister, said a water leak in the Commons earlier this month was a stark reminder of the need to deal with the building’s problems.

Writing in the Bucks Free Press, the Aylesbury MP said: “With each year that passes, the risk of a catastrophic fire grows.”

The Palace of Westminster was constructed in the mid-1800s as a state-of-the-art purpose-built home for Parliament after a fire in 1834 destroyed large parts of the old building, although the medieval Westminster Hall survived.

Although architect Charles Barry put fire safety at the centre of his designs for the new Palace by using cast iron and stone, the opulent interiors he created with Augustus Welby Pugin used vast quantities of combustible materials.

This and the huge network of ventilation shafts and floor voids they created to aid ventilation had the unintended effect of creating ideal conditions for fire and smoke to spread throughout the building.

The “restoration and renewal” programme is not expected to start until the mid-2020s. Credit: PA Graphics

Fire safety systems are in place throughout the Palace but they are antiquated and safety officers are required to patrol the building around the clock to spot signs of a blaze.

A parliamentary spokesman said: “Fire safety is a key priority for Parliament and protections are constantly reviewed and updated including at our active construction sites.

“Last year, we completed a major programme of works to enhance fire safety measures in the Palace of Westminster, and while this work continues we stand ready to learn any lessons that emerge from the fire at Notre Dame to ensure we do everything possible to protect our people and buildings on the Parliamentary Estate.”

Plans were being put in place to ensure that fire risks are kept “to an absolute minimum” when construction works for the restoration and renewal programme start.

“Health, safety and well-being, including fire safety, will remain the highest priority,” the spokesman said.