Times of acute national difficulty have a way of coinciding with the departure of politicians from the Palace of Westminster. During the second world war, members moved out of the Victorian building because the Commons chamber was destroyed by a bomb. Back in October – as Brexit looked a little more intractable than it did the month before, but not as intractable as it does now – the government published the draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill.
The legislation will create the statutory bodies responsible for an extensive programme of repair work. They will be expected to protect taxpayer interests and make sure the palace is fit to house a modern parliament and the thousands of people it employs. The bill itself will be overseen by a joint committee comprising six members from both the Commons and the Lords. At some point, parliamentarians will vote on the design, cost and timing of the work. Then they will leave Westminster for several years, confident only in knowing the Luftwaffe isn't overhead.
The bill will establish a Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body comprised of MPs, peers and external experts. It will have overall responsibility for the restoration and a shadow version was set up in July, led by the chair of the Government Property Agency. A Delivery Authority will also be created to propose ideas and ensure that the work is delivered as planned. The same two-tier structure was responsible for delivering the London Olympics, but it's too early to tell if the Westminster project will reach similar levels of popularity.
According to the government, 'the risk of a significant building failure is increasing every year.' This was an assessment of the structural and safety challenges rather than a weak political joke. The palace is deteriorating faster than it can be repaired because of sustained under-investment, materials chosen for ease of use rather than durability, the number of people who work in the building, and the challenges posed by the parliamentary timetable.
Some features have not been renovated since the mid-1800s, meaning 'the heating, ventilation, water, drainage and electrical systems are now extremely antiquated.' The building has pipes that brought warmth to Gladstone and other important features have been replaced fewer times than Churchill changed party. Urgent tasks include the installation of a new fire safety system and the removal of asbestos. Ornate glass panels bring light into the hallways and allow heat to escape almost as easily. Most of the other windows can't be closed properly. The sewage ejector system was installed in 1888 and is still in use today.
The programme will be vulnerable to metaphor, but those responsible for overseeing the work will be more concerned about stopping an already costly project from becoming even more so. The financial oversight will be as ornate as any palace fixture. The bill will establish a Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission to review the Sponsor Body's cost estimates. The Treasury will get powers to scrutinise and comment on the annual funding estimates, and the National Audit Office will be involved as well.
Large infrastructure projects have a way of inducing nervousness even when they aren't being carried out for the benefit of politicians. Sometimes it shows. Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House of Commons, said 'the measures in this draft bill reflect our determination to ensure the delivery of the restoration and renewal programme runs to time and represents the best value for money.' It is a renewal programme as well as a restoration programme because some look at the damage caused by the expenses scandal – and much else since – and hope construction workers might also be faith healers. The restoration is expected to start in the mid-2020s.
I am currently reading 'First Man,' James Hansen's biography of Neil Armstrong, the first person to step on the moon. The lunar landing was a huge leap in the dark, planned, developed and completed within an incredibly tight timescale to fulfill President Kennedy's commitment of achieving it within the decade. Am I alone in drawing an analogy between this and what is happening with Brexit?
The sole case now being made for Brexit is the marginal vote for it in England and Wales in 2016. Subsequent to that, it has become apparent that there was vast covert social media manipulation, huge misrepresentation, and massive campaign overspending by Leave supporting organisations, funded in part at least by what can only be described as 'funny money.'
Setting legalities aside, perhaps those shadowy figures really behind the Leave campaign should be congratulated for their innovative use of technology in social profiling and manipulation? As a participant in the first referendum on Europe in 1975, which voted overwhelmingly for Remain, what I can say is that unlike it, the second one in 2016 was hardly an exemplar of open, informed debate.
Post Euroref2, and where 'First Man' comes in, is that while a large amount of research has been carried out by a wide range of bodies to produce consistently negative projections for Brexit, nothing of substance has been produced pointing the other way. Ceasing to be a member of the EU is a leap in the dark, so where is the research, development and planning to prove it is potentially a beneficial one?
I agree with John Lloyd
that it is important to talk openly about immigration, but it is also important to distinguish facts
about immigration from fears
about immigration. If we look at the results of the EU referendum, we can see that many of the Leave voting areas had relatively low levels of immigration, and the voters' concerns seem to come from fear of the unknown, rather than a concern about impact on services. Sunderland, for example, famously voted to leave the EU by 61% to 39%, and the white population there is 93.6% of the total. It's more important to find a way of engaging with and challenging those fears rather than just throwing statistics around in the air.
The concerns about immigration had a different focus in the 1970s, but one of the most important ways of challenging the anti-immigrant activity of those days was through Rock Against Racism. It appealed to the imagination of a wider public than is usually concerned about politics, and through the medium of popular music, helped to turn anti-racism into a kind of common sense. This is a different era now, and there is no benefit to be had from a retrospective revival of an old campaign. But there certainly is a need to find an imaginative way for a grass roots expression of support for the multicultural society which we live in today.
I enjoy reading Jean Barr's
film reviews and one reminded me of the first flat my late wife and I had in Wallace Street, Falkirk. It was three flights up, with great views over the town's skyline (until they built the flats opposite). Our downstairs neighbour at the time was a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and I was a student. Since it was the 1970s and I wasn't very diligent, I had plenty of spare time and this old fellow seemed to think I was prime material for recruitment.
The doctrine is strange, and unless you're the type that enjoys making fun of others' beliefs to their faces, it's extremely boring to listen to. However, I found that I could sometimes change the subject and he would occasionally talk about his life. He was Polish, and converted from Catholicism just before the war. Jehovah's Witnesses are frequently persecuted for their anti-military beliefs and he started to find life extremely difficult. He made his way across Europe on foot, ducking and diving and sheltered by sympathisers. He finally got to England, and the Jehovah's Witnesses had looked after him ever since. As an old man, they helped him find a flat and saw to it that he was supported.
It was an aspect of the organisation that I hadn't come across then, and I've not heard mentioned since, and I remember it when I'm tempted to get superior about their alternative medical and philosophical views. It was a great and thought-provoking review. More please!
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