Decanting Parliament – A few ideas from the past

In its first report, published on July 2016, the Joint Select Committee on the Palace of Westminster recommended a full decant as the best option. It was one three delivery options outlined in the Independent Options Appraisal in September 2014: Rolling programme, Partial Decant and Full Decant. The Committee argued that the full decant option:

‘would allow the works to be completed in the shortest possible timeframe, it would minimise the risk of disruption to the day-to-day operation of Parliament, it would be likely to involve the lowest overall capital cost, it would minimise the risk to the Programme itself, and it provides the greatest scope for meeting the needs of a 21st Century Parliament’

Ita recommendations still require Parliament’s approval, but one important question that will have to be addressed at the next stage is how the Parliament is going to be accommodated for the duration of the refurbishment. One potential option would be to provide temporary buildings, another to move them into existing buildings elsewhere. The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre was suggested as a possible venue to set up a temporary debating chamber for the House of Lords. A possible precedent for decanting during the refurbishment period is provided by the Canadian Parliament. Its plan is to move parliament into a temporary debating chamber, created by covering an existing courtyard with a glazed roof.

However, this is not the first time the British Parliament had to move into temporary accommodation. On two occasions Parliament was forced to decant due to full or partial destruction of the Place of Westminster. On another occasion decant options were considered as part of an early renewal programme in the 1860s.

A temporary Houses of Parliament as a technical laboratory
In 1834 Parliament was forced to decant due to a fire, which destroyed nearly the entire medieval Palace of Westminster. On this occasion the architect Robert Smirke was only given a few months to provide the government with provisional parliamentary facilities. In the autumn of 1834 he had completed a series of temporary buildings, which included committee rooms and two temporary debating chambers for the House of Lords and House of Commons. These were occupied for over ten years before Parliament could move into the more ‘permanent’ facilities inside the New Palace of Westminster. The House of Lords moved into its new chamber in 1847, the House of Commons in 1851. Over this period, however, MPs and Lords were highly dissatisfied with the standard of these temporary facilities, which had been constructed cheaply and under enormous time pressure. They were perceived as inadequate, in particular from the point of acoustics, air quality and thermal comfort. At first sight such environmental factors might appear marginal technical issues, but MPs and Lords reported that they were strongly effected by them. The Lords, who occupied a tall and narrow chamber created within the ruins of the old painted chamber, were particular dissatisfied with the internal climatic conditions. It appointed a Select Committee to consider the possibility of constructing a new, purpose-designed temporary chamber. Their plans were never implemented. Due to increasing pressure from Lords and MPs, however, several improvement were made to the design of the temporary buildings. These included experiments with artificial lighting and the introduction of a ventilation and air-conditioning system by the physician David Boswell Reid. The first trails were conducted inside the House of Commons and were later extended to the House of Lords. Several Select Committee were appointed between 1839 and 1844 to coordinate these alterations, transforming the temporary buildings into an arena for field studies into questions of ventilation, acoustics, artificial lighting and climate control. As such the temporary buildings provided parliament with the opportunity to test and develop new ideas, yielding new insights that later fed into design of the New Palace of Westminster.

The role of technical experimentation inside the Temporary Houses of Parliament is the subject of a journal article published in Architectural History, entitled ‘The Temporary Houses of Parliament and David Boswell Reid’s Architecture of Experimentation.’

An early renewal programme for the House of Commons, 1867
A less known example was an inquiry undertaken in the late 1860s, when parliament contemplated a ‘renewal programme’ for the House of Commons. In 1867 parliament appointed the Select Committee on Arrangements to enable Members to take part in Proceedings of the House of Commons. It was was charged with the responsibility of investigating ways in which the chamber could be adapted to allow a larger number of MPs to participate in debates. During debates of the 1866 Reform Bill, when attendance was unusually high, it became a major issue. The existing debating chamber, which was completed in 1852 based on Charles Barry’s design, was not large enough to adequately accommodate the full number of MPs during one sitting. The ability to participate was not only compromised by its physical size but also by difficulties with hearing and seeing the debates. The MPs sitting too far from the Speaker, in particular at gallery level, had difficulties with following debates and or being heard when addressing the House from within the Galleries.


Edward Middle Barry’s proposal for a new debating chamber inside Commons Court, 1867 (Report of Select Committee, 1867)

In this inquiry the Select Committee explored two alternative options. One was to enlarge the existing chamber, the other was to built a completely new debating chamber. Proposals were submitted by two Members of the Committees and the architect Edward Middleton Barry, a son of Charles Barry who had taken over the responsibility for completing the Palace of Westminster. Thomas Bazley, MP for Manchester, presented a plan for increasing the seating capacity within the existing chamber and Thomson Hankey, MP for Peterborough, submitted a scheme for replacing the existing House with a larger debating chamber on the same site. Barry developed three alternative proposals. This included two proposals for enlarging the existing chamber, both of which involved substantial physical alterations, such as the removal of walls and a fundamental re-organisation of the seating arrangement. Barry argued that the demolition and replacement of the existing chamber would be the most disruptive and expensive option. To allow debates to continues, it required the investment into the construction of a new temporary debating chamber. His third plan was for new debating, outlining what he considered to be a more functionally adequate arrangement for debates. The floor plan was square, not rectangular. He argued that a square plan would enable every MPs to see and hear equally wall as every bench was kept at the shortest possible distance from the Speaker. It also included a new ventilation system and skylights that achieve better natural illumination. In contrast to Hankey’s scheme, however, Barry proposed to built the new chamber inside the Commons Court, which was located on the east side of the original debating chamber. His main argument for building the chamber in a different location was the fact that it would cause the least interference. Debates could continue inside the old chamber until the new chamber was completed. The Committee recommended Barry’s proposal but the plans were dropped in 1868 by the newly elected liberal government.

A loose reconstruction
The most recent example of Parliament moving house was in 1941, when the debating chamber of the House of Commons was destroyed by the Luftwaffe. Initially sittings were held in the Assembly Hall of Church House, which was in close proximity to the Palace, and later were moved into the chamber of the House of Lords. Once again Parliament used the time away from home to review its ideas about what constitutes an ideal debating chamber. Between 1942 and 1943 the House of Commons had a series of lively debates about how far the new chamber should adhere or move away from its Victorian precedent. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a strong advocate for retaining the traditional form of the chamber. In contrast many MPs shared the review that the chamber should embrace the most recent technology to address questions of ventilation, lighting and thermal comfort. Not dissimilar to 1830s these technical aspects were considered fundamental functional requirements. A Select Committee, which was appointed in 1844 to reviewed these questions, recommended to adopt modern air-conditioning. The interior of the post-war chamber was a loose reconstruction of Charles Barry’s original chamber, but equipped with a modern mechanical air-conditioning and ventilation, it was also a demonstration of the technical progress made since the mid-nineteenth century. Today, over seventy years after the original chamber was destroyed, it once again might face a review


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