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British Government Debates How To Repair Crumbling Parliament Building


When we think of London, we picture Big Ben and the sprawling Palace of Westminster along the Thames. And the Palace is where the House of Commons conducts its lively debates, but the building is falling apart and has become a money pit. The British government will have to spend up to $8 billion and take years, if not decades, to get it back in shape. NPR's Leila Fadel reports.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: In the echoing halls of the Palace of Westminster, visitors are greeted by statues, paintings and plaques that tell the history of the British monarchy and the birth of its democracy. The visitors' entrance is a large hall with an intricate oak roof. It is one of the few places that survived a great fire in 1834 that burned most of the palace to the ground. It was rebuilt in the Gothic style that's now one of the world's most familiar landmarks.

DAN CRUICKSHANK: Having been this great hall, the heart of the medieval royal palace, it has served also as a scene of some of the most evocative, powerful and moving events in British history.

FADEL: That's Dan Cruickshank. He is an architectural historian, and he gets almost giddy when he describes the palace's architecture and its rich history. It was built as a Royal palace in the 11th century. It's where Charles I was tried for his life and where Sir Winston Churchill lay in state. Cruickshank loves this building. But its maintenance has long been a headache.

CRUICKSHANK: It's been a problem since the 1850s. The only thing is what you do about it because the building is now beyond any issues of - it's a symbol (unintelligible), beyond issues of structural problems, you know, this would take a certain amount of reconstruction.

FADEL: He says the palace was built on marshland using a type of limestone that's now crumbling in the face of London's pollution and rainfall. The roofs are leaking. The building has asbestos. The plumbing fails, and there are electrical problems so severe building inspectors say there's a definite risk of another fire. But this building lives and breathes British history, Cruickshank says, and it can't be left to rot.

CRUICKSHANK: It speaks about English architect, English aspirations, about democratic government in a way that kind of rituals of democratic government have been taken from the architecture itself in a very gentle way.

FADEL: Cruickshank says it's that kind of history that makes it so important the building remains the home of the British Parliament.

CRUICKSHANK: What would happen to it - become a museum. You've got too many museums in this country. It's a museum country. This is, you know - you don't want a museum of Parliament. You want Parliament live, kicking and well in this building.

FADEL: Now members of Parliament must decide what to do with their crumbling home. The quickest plan would be for them to move out for six years to allow a complete renovation. If the MPs decide to stay in place while the Parliament is renovated around them, the work would take at least 32 years and cost up to $8 billion.

I meet David Winnick, a British parliamentarian, in the halls of the House of Commons. He says it's costing British taxpayers between $40 and $80 million a year just to keep the building functional, and it's time for that to stop.

DAVID WINNICK: We should make a firm decision. And it has to be made by the House of Commons. No one else makes the decision, not the prime minister, the government or anyone else. It's the House of Commons, as such, that has to make the decision, and it should make the decision as quickly as possible.

FADEL: No final decisions have been made. A committee overseeing the plans is expected to make recommendations before the end of March. Leila Fadel, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.

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