THE FIRE SAFETY fixes required in the Houses of Parliament are now believed possible to undertake ‘without emptying the building’.

Two years ago, it was revealed that ‘much of the parliamentary estate’ would close that summer for ‘urgent renovation work’ amid fire safety concerns, after a report in September 2017 stated that the Houses of Parliament would receive a £118m upgrade, with the government having budgeted the money to pay for the 'eight-year' programme of fire safety improvements across its estate.

‘High pressure watermist systems’ were to be installed alongside sprinklers, with automatic fire detection and voice alarm systems, emergency lighting, dampers, fire signage, compartmentation, fire doors and the water systems to be fitted or replaced. The June 2018 report said that the ‘urgent’ work came ‘amid growing fire safety concerns’, with fire inspectors said to ‘roam the corridors 24 hours a day so that the building can pass the safety tests required to stay open’.

The fire safety improvement works programme, the ‘extensive fire safety renovation’ works, were said then to have to have been carried out to ‘address immediate safety concerns by the end of [2018]’, but MPs and officials warned that authorities were ‘miles behind’ on the work, while a senior official said the building was ‘another Grenfell waiting to happen’.

Earlier in 2018, then Commons Speaker John Bercow was said to have ‘ignored’ findings of an internal audit on improving fire safety in the Houses of Parliament, with leaked documents showing that he ‘went against official advice and kept a policy that prevents fire alarms from sounding at Westminster’, even despite ‘increasing fears of a serious blaze’.

There had been 60 incidents since 2008 that ‘could have resulted in a serious fire’, with insiders adding that there were ‘about five fires a week’ on the site. Issues meant the building was ‘a calamity waiting to happen’, with the basement containing ‘fire hazards, asbestos, water leaks, seeping drainage units, outdated electrical systems and antiquated steam-powered heating apparatus’.

Fire was said to be the ‘most serious problem’, with many areas not having compartmentation, while gas pipes and electricity ‘run side by side’, and steel drip trays have been installed ‘to prevent leaking water falling directly on electric cables’. Additionally, electric cabling from the 1940s is clad in vulcanised Indian rubber ‘which turns to dust after a time’, and officials feared it has ‘turned to fine powder’ that could ‘easily set alight’.

More recently, two clerks of work roles overseeing fire safety improvements were given to Hickton amid worries that ‘that restoring the Palace of Westminster will increase the threat of fire’. The work is said to be worth £250,000, and will include overseeing ‘three live projects and the completion of one major scheme’, with work scheduled to finish in December this year.

In May, the overall £4bn plan was ‘thrown into doubt’ after a ‘sweeping review’ of the project was announced, with ‘every option’ said to be ‘now back on the table’. Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom had argued in February 2019 that the palace risked ‘burning down’ if work did not begin ‘soon’, pleading with a parliamentary committee that the government was ‘desperately keen’ to ‘crack on’ with restoration work amid concerns over fire safety.

She cautioned at the time against ‘allowing history to repeat itself’ after the Palace of Westminster burned down in 1834, and noted that there are ‘significant measures’ in place to make sure the buildings conform to fire regulations, but a ‘lot of money’ needed to be spent improving drainage, sewage, wiring, plumbing and heating. In July, she again argued that the place is a ‘disaster waiting to happen’ if MP’s don’t vote to move parliament to another venue during safety works.

Most recently in August this year, one of the fire safety contractors working on the building discussed the project, and now Express has reported that the ‘vital’ full refurbishment is set to ‘be quietly abandoned’, as experts ‘now believe it is possible to do vital safety work without emptying the building’, which ‘against the economic turmoil’ of the pandemic and the projected £4bn costs ‘is likely to be the more tempting option’.

The news outlet said that sources close to leader of the house Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed the proposal to turn another building on the estate – Richmond House – into a temporary chamber ‘have already been shelved’, with those plans ‘controversial because it would have meant the demolition of a listed building’.

These sources also noted that ‘fire safety and electrical wiring measures can be extended in a way not previously believed’, so ‘a big project may not be necessary after all’, with there apparently being ‘widespread concern’ among MPs about ‘spending billions of pounds on themselves at a time when the country is having to pay for the repercussions of a pandemic’.

The initial £4bn estimate was ‘expected to grow’ and could have seen the building emptied ‘for six years or more’, but Mr Rees-Mogg launched a review in May this year on the project, which was ‘deemed necessary because of concerns over fire risks, particularly with wiring’. Meg Hillier, Labour chair of the public accounts committee, warned that the delays had been making the project ‘more difficult’.

She added that ‘parliament is literally falling apart around the thousands of people who work there and the million or so who, in better times, visit every year. It poses a very real risk to health and safety in its current state’. A 2016 report had warned work needed to be done ‘speedily’ or there was the risk of a ‘sudden, catastrophic failure or that small, incremental failures might make the building uninhabitable’.

That same report said that maintaining the building was like ‘trying to fill a bathtub with a thimble while the water is draining out of the plughole at the other end’, and the aforementioned high number of fires on site have meant a ‘permanent fire safety team’ patrols the building. Another £427,000 was spent on fire safety and building safety works for Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle’s flat on the estate as well, including £123,000 on fire safety alone.