LONDON Britain's parliament should completely vacate its historic Palace of Westminster building for six years in order to allow a multi-billion pound major renovation project to take place, a committee of lawmakers said on Thursday.
The neo-Gothic fronted building on the banks of the River Thames was rebuilt in the mid-1800s following a fire and its mechanical and electrical services have not undergone major renovation since.
Last year an independent report on required restoration work found asbestos throughout the building, stonework crumbling, roofs leaking and plumbing failing.
"There is a substantial and growing risk of either a single, catastrophic event, such as a major fire, or a succession of incremental failures in essential systems which would lead to parliament no longer being able to occupy the palace," the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster, set up to consider the renovation options, said in a report.
"Unless an intensive programme of major remedial work is undertaken soon, it is likely the building will become uninhabitable."
The committee looked at a series of options ranging from a six-year, 3.5 billion pound programme involving lawmakers moving out of the building, to a 32-year rolling programme carried out while it continued to function as a parliament, at a cost of 5.7 billion pounds.
"All the evidence points to having to move out of the whole palace simultaneously. That is the lowest risk, most cost-effective and quickest option," said committee member and opposition Labour lawmaker Chris Bryant.
The committee recommended parliament now set up a delivery authority to put together detailed plan and budget.
A world heritage site and major tourist attraction, the palace includes the famous clock tower housing the Big Ben bell. The oldest building on the site, Westminster Hall, dates from 1099 and is still in daily use.
The committee said that while the work, expected to begin in the early 2020s, is carried out, the House of Commons should relocate to the nearby Department of Health's building, where a temporary chamber would be built in an inner courtyard.
Parliament's upper chamber, the House of Lords, should be moved to an adjacent conference centre, it said.
"Both houses must act now to restore and renew this historic building for the future, and to ensure that the Palace of Westminster is preserved for future generations," it said.
(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; editing by Michael Holden)