British MPs vote to vacate Houses of Parliament for much-needed repairs | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 01.02.2018
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British MPs vote to vacate Houses of Parliament for much-needed repairs

UK politicians are to leave their historic Westminster home for six years while long overdue renovations take place. Part of the complex is more than 900 years old and is deemed a health and safety risk.

British lawmakers on Wednesday approved plans to vacate the iconic Houses of Parliament for the first time in 77 years to allow major renovation work to take place.

MPs voted by 234 to 185 for a "full and timely decant" of the parliamentary complex, which sits alongside London's River Thames.

The Guardian reported that politicians decided the building was at risk of a major fire or flooding, so they approved a total refurbishment costing at least £3.5 billion (€4 billion, $4.97 billion). The repairs are expected to begin by 2025 for a period of six years.

The paper said Britain's lower House of Commons would likely relocate to a venue in Whitehall, a central London street that houses much of the British civil service. The upper House of Lords, which is also expected to vote on the plans, will move to a nearby conference center.

Decades too late

"This debate arguably should have taken place about 40 years ago," said House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom at the start of the three-hour session.

She argued that the parliamentary complex, some of which dates back to 1099, was in "dire need of repair," and cited 60 incidents over the past decade that could have caused a major fire.

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Conservative lawmaker Damian Green said it was not a "wild exaggeration" to describe the parliamentary building as a "death trap."

Warning of the threat to the building's 8,000 staff and a million or so annual visitors, Green said "we are lucky that no one has been killed so far" after chunks of masonry fell from the structure on several occasions.

A report in March by a parliamentary committee cited fire, sewage inundation and electrical failure among the possible threats to the building.

"The risk of a catastrophic failure is high and growing with every month that passes," the committee said.

MPs in the House of Commons (picture alliance/dpa/AP Photo)

As well as being a safety risk, Britain's parliament is seriously short on space. The House of Commons has just 427 seats for 650 MPs

The Independent said some of the parliamentary complex's plumbing and electric cabling has not been upgraded since 1870 and that the building's walls are asbestos-ridden.

British media reported that fire wardens patrol the complex night and day, searching for potential fire hazards.

Despite the majority in support of moving out, several politicians objected to the cost, including Conservative MP Edward Leigh, who said the multibillion-pound bill could not be justified while voters were experiencing "unparalleled austerity."

Other options ruled out

He also predicted that the repairs would likely take twice as long and cost twice as much. Instead, he supported a motion for the two houses to remain on site while the renovations took place, which was rejected.

Another unsuccessful alternative would have seen the upper house vacate only after the lower house had returned to the complex.

Following the vote, Pete Wishart, an MP for the Scottish National Party, denounced the decision on Twitter.

"MPs have just voted to spend billions of pounds on renovating our place of work. In the face of their austerity and with the full force of their Brexit coming, this is their priority," he told his followers.

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The Houses of Parliament are part of the UNESCO Westminster World Heritage Site which includes the clock tower housing Big Ben, which is already undergoing work.

Also known as the Palace of Westminster, the complex was originally built as a royal residence in the Middle Ages before becoming home to England's earliest parliament in the 13th century and later the British Parliament. Major alterations were made in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The last time both parliamentary chambers were vacated was during World War II, when the complex was hit on 14 occasions by German bombs. In 1941, the Commons Chamber was entirely destroyed by a fire which spread to the Members' Lobby and caused the ceiling to collapse. The House of Lords was struck by a bomb which passed through the floor of the Chamber without exploding.

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