Fire or flood: UK Parliament is in danger, but are MPs paying attention?

The Palace of Westminster needs protecting from extreme weather

People walk along London's South Bank with The Palace of Westminster, home to the Houses of Parliament, in the background. EPA
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Every British child loves the traditional fireworks on November 5. Across the UK, we celebrate what was a historic failure.

The conspirator Guy “Guido” Fawkes was part of a Spanish-inspired plot supported by English Catholic rebels to blow up the parliament at Westminster and assassinate the Protestant King, James I.

If the conspirators had managed to blow up parliament in 1605, in the ensuing chaos, it is possible that the closer union between Scotland and England in the “Union of the Crowns” would have failed. The modern British state might never have happened.

Of course, the penalty for failure in 1605 was severe. Guy Fawkes and his comrades were tortured and executed. Yet what is striking is that the real destruction of the British parliament came 200 years later, and this significant setback for the British state came not as a result of a gunpowder plot but through complacency, carelessness and incompetence.

In 1834, the British parliamentary authorities finally decided it was time to get rid of a load of wood that had been stored in Westminster for decades. The wood was burned in the ancient furnaces in the parliament buildings, but the blaze set alight the chimneys and the whole thing got out of hand. The resulting fire burned down much of parliament in the worst blaze since the Great Fire of London two centuries earlier.

The Victorians – intent on conquering half the world – were shocked by their own complacency. They hadn’t taken simple precautions. But then they leapt into action. They brought in the young architects who built the magnificent Palace of Westminster we know today.

The reason this piece of history is relevant – perhaps even urgent – is that the Westminster parliament, the most memorable building at the heart of British democracy, is threatened again.

The threat has been predicted and debated, yet little has been done to fix it. Worse, it’s a double threat – from fire, but also water.

Future planning for possibly predictable yet disastrous events has been done before in Britain, but often the lessons have not been properly learned

Dr Hannah White, of the British Institute for Government, is one who has raised the fire-alarm. She suggests that the kind of blaze that destroyed Notre Dame cathedral in Paris could destroy the home of British democracy too. Those I’ve talked to who work at Westminster agree about the dangers.

But what is now also being discussed is the water risk. It is a real threat, at least in the minds of those in the Bank of England who consider risk to London as a great financial capital.

Sam Woods runs the bank’s Prudential Regulation Authority. Mr Woods is reported to be planning a resilience test for “a very large climate event in the UK” and in other major financial centres. His concern goes beyond the predicted gradual changes in climate to something more like the extreme weather patterns that appear to have become more common around the world – flash floods as well as rising sea levels.

He explained the threat that should give members of Parliament nightmares: “Imagine Westminster under water – a really extreme thing that made policy shift in a very dramatic way.”

If “terrible climate events” are happening around the world all the time, then the foreseeable danger is that something similar happens on the banks of the tidal River Thames. It could flood Westminster and have a “very sudden effect in financial markets”.

Mr Woods should be congratulated. He’s at least thinking ahead. Future planning for possibly predictable yet disastrous events has been done before in Britain, but often the lessons have not been properly learned.

There was planning of a sort for a pandemic but – as the long-running inquiry into coronavirus will undoubtedly reveal – discussing possible future scenarios did not lead to significant or effective preparations for Covid-19.

Yet making Westminster more resilient raises two separate questions.

Climate change is a humanitarian but also a financial and political risk. Were parliament to be flooded, MPs could be homeless for weeks or months, leading to all kinds of dislocation for the UK government.

Second, leaving aside the likelihood of a “terrible climate event”, the challenge of simply fixing what is wrong with the buildings in the Palace of Westminster has a timescale ranging upwards from 12 years and a cost put anywhere from £7 billion to £22 billion ($8.5-27 billion), according to New Civil Engineer research.

You might understand, therefore, why delay and adopting an ostrich strategy is often the human response to intractable and costly problems. But as the Victorians found out in 1834, pretending that there isn’t a problem doesn’t make that problem go away. It makes it more dangerous.

Climate change and even mundane building maintenance both demand long-term thinking. Unfortunately, it’s not just the attention span of politicians worldwide that can be short. Their political lifespan is often short too.

Many of the current crop of British MPs will no longer be in parliament after the election next year. They must be wondering why they should take inconvenient, unpopular and costly action now for a problem that, perhaps, only the next generation of their successors will actually face.

But they should act anyway, because it’s the right thing to do.

Published: September 27, 2023, 7:00 AM