Saturday, 29 October 2016

Protecting Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament

A couple of years ago the Right Honourable MP Chris Grayling stated that "if we ended up having a debate about alternative venues for this House, we would very proably find 650 different arguments being made". As it is being highly recommended that MPs have to now move out of Westminster Abbey, a number of alternatives are having to be looked at, and a location outside of the M25 isn't not completely out of the question. There is absolutely nothing in the constitution of the British government that says we can't have parliament being held anywhere else. They could debate in my back garden (all 5 metres of it) and if all the relevant people are present and the protocol is followed, then constitutionally any laws passed there and then would be as valid as they would be in Westminster.

What do we know of the history of Westminster Abbey and the site of the Houses of Parliament? This is a very quick rundown taken from the official westminster abbey website and the Houses of Parliament website. Founded by Edward the Confessor, who had it dedicated to St. Peter, near the site of a benedictine monastery. Previously there had also been a Saxon church on the benedictine site. It has been at the centre of British monarchy for almost a millennium, as Edward was buried there in 1065 and William the Conqueror was crowned there; only 2 kings haven't been crowned in Westminster abbey. It's called Westminster because St. Paul's was in the Eastminster. The original church was mostly replaced by a gothic structure under King Henry III. Subsequent additions by Henry VII and even later in the 18th century with Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Meanwhile, the Palace of Westminster (the current seat of the government) was established by King Cnut in the early 11th century. The layout of the palace, and in particular its relation to the abbey, has not changed dramatically over the years. For example, the placement of different courtyards. The old courtyard was also where Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes and co. rented one of the houses which ran in a row across the centre of the yard and actually tried to tunnel through to the House of Lords through the Old Yard before discovering the cellar under the House of Lords!! The New Palace Yard was built by William Rufus and It now conceals a five-level underground car park with space for 450 cars, constructed in 1972-4. An archaeological investigation undertaken at that time yielded much information about the history of the Yard. In particular, it revealed the octagonal base of a large canopied fountain built in 1443 by Henry VI.

The old monastery was dissolved in 1540 by Henry VIII, who then erected Westminster into a cathedral. However the abbey was refounded by Elizabeth I, and these clergymen had important functions within the civil government of Westminster until the 20th century. The whole complex of Westmnister suffered partial damage during the Second World War but could have been much worse. This wasn't the first time fire had threatened the Abbey- in 1834 a fire in the Houses of Parliament gutted both houses of parliament but the Abbey was prioritised and also saved by the change of direction in the wind!

Today, the building is in a dire state, but not through lack of trying. Rodents have taken up residence (not good, particularly considering food is prepared on site), not to mention the antiquated heating, ventilation, water, drainage and electrical systems combined with extensive stonework decay, leaking roofs and the external fabric could collapse into the Thames if there's a big storm (disclaimer: this last fact based on its perilous position next to the Thames rather than any report information). And not forgetting the biggest risk in working inside old buildings-asbestos. Lots of it, in perilous and dangerous places near where people are working. Asbestos related cases are being reported from people who worked inside Westminster, who could now sue the government for allowing them to be exposed to asbestos (from an article in the Metro, 24th October 2016). Would you want to live and/or work in a place like this? If it wasn't for the history, architecture and cultural surroundings, of course...

The main source of contention (I suspect) is the cost of repairs. Much like any big project the final costs are yet to be worked out but it somewhere between £3.1bn to upwards of £7bn. Now, if they go for the cheaper option, all MPs and other residents (if there are any) would have to move out. But where to? Coming back to the Right Honourable Chris Grayling, he may have a point. Everyone could legitimately have a space that could be used in their constituencies.

So how to resolve this issue? Find a space that everyone agrees on? The Thames? There are genuine plans for a floating Houses of Parliament as a temporary space while restoration happens, connected to the Westminster banks. It should be said they are not confirmed at this stage, but the architects, Gensler, appear to have called it Project Poseidon. One wonders how this would fit into the setting of the central London character, which has been recently described as under threat from modern development. However, the advice given is just that, advice. It is up to the archaeologists, councillors, MPs, developers and other interested parties to create that dialogue to preserve our heritage in a suitable way. That said I'm not against a floating Parliament, it is forward thinking and flood proof (to a point). The National Assembly of Wales and Holyrood are modern buildings that are arguably more suited to modern democracy. My personal favourites for potential new locations are the St. George's National Football Centre, seeing how it is barely used (from my understanding), or one of the many empty mills in Bradford, to kill 2 birds with one stone (regeneration in Bradford and attract more income to the local area, badly needed). Or an abandoned mine shaft? Save on heating bills with underground heating... A lot of arguments for leaving London rest on the distance travelled by many MPs to London, and that a more central location in the UK would resolve this. However, there are just over 70 MPs in London out of 650 MPs. With this number set to decrease by the end of the decade, will it make a less London-centric location more feasible? Other major cities like the West Midlands region (Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton etc.) (28) or Greater Manchester (26) enjoy less MPs, even when put together. So that's a large chunk of MPs who would all have to travel out of London to get to another destination. Or buy a second home...

Furthermore, its World Heritage Designation is great for highlighting its cultural value to the city of London, but this is not a barrier to funding or stopping maintainence. It is simply a sticker stating its importance in global culture as approved by UNESCO, the United Nation's education and culture sector. Therefore, any changes to the fabric of the building should be in keeping with its cultural value to the city of London, although this statement includes the setting of the buildings as well as their 

Another threat to consider are groups like ISIL, who are now a major threat to global cultural heritage, including Westminster. Supporters of ISIL seem to support the idea of "If you're not with us, you are by defintion against us". An interview with the BBC's Dan Cruickshank confirmed this, and this makes the Houses of Parliament, a symbol of democracy for western governments, arguably even more of a target than before the 7/7 attacks 10 years ago, when there were less organisations committing iconclastic acts. UNESCO has recently recognised this threat with the Unite for Heritage Coalition in Bonn, which is designed to strengthen the mobilisation of governments and heritage stakeholders in the face of deliberate damage to cultural heritage. So with this Westminster and the Houses of Parliament must evolve against these threats, either physically or through other means. However, other threats, such as the immediate condition of the Houses of Parliament, must be addressed first.

This is an excellent opportunity to answer a few research questions about the archaeology and history of Westminster. What about the site before the creation of the palace? The abbey was nearby but not directly underneath the palace. Was it chosen as a natural high point on the Thames bank? Get some archaeologists in and dig up a few mass graves while we're at it! However, we have to weigh up the cost of more people walking around Westminster while it is still functional, which would help in explaining how archaeology works to the users of Westminster and visitors, or going for the cheaper and quicker option and hope that the archaeologists get to explain their findings to the public. My gut feeling says the latter but for the sake of saving money (especially as it would look very bad on the current government); archaeologists should proactively seek ways of investigating and publishing their findings to the wider world while the repairs are being carried out.

Finally, it would be nice if Westminster Abbey was given some climate change resistant upgrades. Maybe a rising water barrier?

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