As politicians dither over repairs, the risk of fire, flood or a deluge of sewage only increases. But fixing the Palace of Westminster might change British politics for good – which is the last thing many of its residents want. By Charlotte Higgins
Britain's Parliament is broken. It is a fire risk. It is insanitary. Asbestos worms its way through the building. Many of the pipes and cables that carry heat, water, electricity and gas were installed just after the war and should have been replaced in the 1970s; some of them date from the 19th century. The older the steam pipes become, the more likely they are to crack or leak. When high-temperature, high-pressure steam enters the atmosphere, it expands at speed, generating huge, explosive energy. Such force could be fatal for anyone close; it could also disturb asbestos and send it flying through the ventilation system, to be inhaled by palace workers. The building caught fire 40 times between 2008 and 2012. Last year, a malfunctioning light on an obscure part of the roof caused an electrical fire that could have spread rapidly, had it not been detected at once. Whatever else happens in the Palace of Westminster, that great neo-Gothic pile on the Thames, one thing is constant. Every hour of every day, four or five members of the fire-safety team are patrolling the palace, hunting for flames.