Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Ros in the Lords: Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill

Monday saw the Second Reading of the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill, which creates the formal structures required to carry out the task of saving the Palace of Westminster from ever more rapid decay. Admittedly, some of their noble Lords seemed rather determined to fight a battle that had been lost more than a year ago, but Ros was focussed on the task at hand...

My Lords, I start by reminding the House that I am a member of the shadow sponsor body. I agree with every word that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said about the clarity and focus of the members of the sponsor body in delivering this project. I can assure the House that, even though we are still in shadow form, we are behaving as much as we can as if we were doing the job and, therefore, a huge amount is already going on. However, there comes a point where we need to be on a statutory footing, and that is why we need the Bill. I pay particular tribute to Liz Peace and the other external members, who are working well over and above their expected time commitment to come up to speed, not only with the project and the labyrinthine way in which we make decisions but on how their special expertise can be used to best effect.​

The time has come when we must get on with it and get the project off the ground. It is not to Parliament’s credit that this building has been allowed to deteriorate to its current form. I often think that we are so accustomed to that deterioration that we do not see it any more. We do not see the portakabins in the courtyards because there is no space; or the large parts of the building that are covered in scaffolding because the masonry is falling off; or the piles of unwanted material cluttering up the ground floor because there is not anywhere to put it— the fire risk has already been referred to by the noble Baroness in her opening—or the constant and expensive patching up of the mechanical and electrical services. Through all of these we plough on regardless.

What we are doing to the heritage here is tragic. I have been here for almost 20 years and have only just realised that there is a mediaeval cloister in the House of Commons and that this historic gem is in a state of serious disrepair. The one fact that really struck home to me—which, to my shame, I had not realised—is that in this entire Palace there is only one lift that meets modern accessibility criteria. That is disgraceful.

The Joint Committee has done a great job. It has pointed out—the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, referred to this—that restoration and renewal brings forward a chance for democratic renewal. However, I would add that, in this most conservative of institutions, restoration and renewal can also be a catalyst for operational renewal in areas such as catering, support functions such as IT and security, visitors, education and so on. When I talk about Parliament in the context of this work, I mean the whole of Parliament as an institution and not only the Members.

It is a very complicated project. It has many technical challenges in a confined space in a world heritage site, with the complexities of all the different activities that we need this building to deliver, whether as a home for our democracy, an operational Parliament, a workplace for many, a visitor attraction, an educational resource and so much more. So Parliament made the right decision 18 months ago when it decided to use the model successfully used for the Olympics—I am glad the scrutiny committee supported that. That committee focused attention on the relationship between the sponsor body and the delivery authority that it will establish in statutory form. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said in his opening remarks, it is a well-trodden, contractual relationship—or should be.

For me, the key is that for everything to work, the brief set by the sponsor body, acting as the single client, must be clear and not subject to constant change. The most important relationship is that between Parliament itself and the sponsor body. For the sponsor body to act as the single client effectively, it can certainly take the lead, but it is not Parliament. The democratic renewal of which I spoke earlier must be led by Parliament itself. The sponsor body should reflect the wishes of Parliament, certainly by offering up ideas and options, but mostly by looking at how the current Parliament’s aspirations can be met and ensuring that future aspirations are not stopped.​

The same goes for operational renewal. It is not for the sponsor body to tell Parliament how to run its security, catering or visitor management, but rather to explore with Parliament what opportunities there might be for more efficient, effective and imaginative services.

The sponsor body is ambitious, and Parliament should be too. From much of the work the sponsor body has done so far in talking to many Members and staff, it is quite clear that there is a lot we could do right now. We do not have to wait for restoration and renewal, but we are so conservative that we never change anything. Many of the questions raised by Members and staff about restoration and renewal are about not the building work itself but how the building will be used. That should be in the hands of noble Lords and the Administration, not the shadow sponsor body.

We have heard a lot about Caroline Shenton’s book, and she gave us a copy when we started. The previous Clerk of the House of Commons commented that Barry needed a sponsor body. I am sure that may be right, but we must be realistic that the sponsor body itself is not a magic bullet. Parliament has a responsibility to be ambitious and to make this work. Parliamentary oversight of the work after the event is important, but the real value lies in engagement before the decisions are made, really understanding the potential consequences of particular options and aspirations and guiding the sponsor body accordingly.

The approach taken in the Bill envisages key milestones in the project which require parliamentary approval and an estimates committee with financial oversight powers. There will be a serious focus on communications between the sponsor body and Parliament, but we need to give more thought to how that will work the other way round: how Parliament is going to communicate with the sponsor body. There is potentially a very important role for the Deputy Speaker, the Services Committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and the arts and heritage committee. Then there will be the usual mechanism of debates and questions, all of which will play an important part. The sponsor body has established a set of key strategic objectives, which include health and safety, security, accessibility, heritage, effective working and value for money. Very few people would disagree with any of them. The job of the sponsor body is to commission a project that delivers as many of them as possible, but there will be points where Parliament will have choices to make. They may be difficult choices, and Parliament will need to be very clear about where its priorities lie.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Day 7 - Tbilisi, and a nice long soak...

Whilst Borjomi is famous for its mineral water, Tbilisi is famous for its thermal baths, where you soak in the warm waters supposedly renown for their health giving qualities. Various famous people came to Tbilisi, bathed and were seriously impressed. These days, it’s rather more of a tourist thing, but it looked like fun, so I had booked a private room and a peeling before arriving in Georgia.

I had picked one of the more highly recommended, recently refurnished baths, and arrived to find something rather spectacular, at least on the outside. And, somewhat to my relief, it was just as nice inside.

For about £65, you get two hours in a private room, large enough to hold four, if you’ve brought friends along. The room, or at least my one, came with a warm thermal bath, a cool thermal bath and a scorchingly hot Finnish sauna, which you can alternate as you feel the desire. For not much extra, a rather stocky Georgian will come to the room and give you what is called a peeling, where he scrubs you with a mildly scouring hand mitt, soaps you and then rinses you off. Anyone who has been to a Turkish bath will understand what I’m talking about. You lose quite a lot of dead skin, and come out of it rather smoother than you went in.

They’ll also bring you food and drink, including alcohol, and the room comes with a menu. The room is charged by the hour, rather than per person, making it potentially very reasonable in cost terms.

And it was very good. I came in slightly weary and a bit frazzled, and left rather more relaxed.

The rest of the day was spent walking around the city, despite the heat. Tbilisi is a very walkable city, and even if your accommodation is less than central, the Metro system can bring you to the old town quickly and efficiently. I rather liked the place, and if time permits, I’ll bring Ros, as I think she’d like it too.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Day 6 - Borjomi back to Tbilisi, the day of the big match...

There’s no doubt that this was something of a helter skelter sort of the trip, and I didn’t really allow myself much time to stand and stare, so it was time to head back to Tbilisi, for I had arranged, via an online app, a ticket for Georgia’s home Euro 2020 qualifying match against the mighty Gibraltar.

The train times out of Borjomi being somewhat inconvenient - either too early in the morning or too late to get to the game, I had to improvise. A taxi was arranged to take me back to Khashuri, to connect with the train from Poti to Tbilisi, and a train ticket purchased via the Georgian Railways app.

Georgian driving etiquette is vaguely familiar, given the amount of time I’ve spent in Mumbai over the years. Patience does not figure hugely, and overtaking manoeuvres can be a bit “close your eyes and wait for the crash” from a passenger perspective. But my driver got me to the station easily enough. Change was a different matter, as my 100 Lari note as clearly more than he could handle. Luckily, a nearby bank solved the problem, I paid him a ridiculously reasonable fare - Tbilisi taxi drivers are clearly not reflective of the rest of Georgia - and I could catch my late running train.

Back in Tbilisi, the weather was rather threatening, very warm with the promise of thunderstorms. I borrowed an umbrella for the walk to the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena, the home of Dinamo Tbilisi and also the national stadium. I wasn’t alone, with what looked like an organised group of fans matching to the stadium singing and lighting flares. The atmosphere didn’t seem particularly tense, and given the likely absence of away supporters, it didn’t seem to be a concern.

Arriving at the stadium, the mobile ticket on my phone was scanned and I was in, in good time for a 3 Lari beer and an encounter with three Gibraltar fans, all from England. They had clearly travelled without any great expectation of a glorious victory but were there for a good time and an explore.

The game itself was fairly uneventful. Gibraltar started off keeping virtually everyone behind the ball, daring the Georgians to come at them, which worked for about half an hour, when the ball was rather prodded in from just inside the area by the Georgian midfielder, Guilia. At that point, the Gibraltar tactics changed, and they pushed forward a bit more. Just before half time, they won a free kick just outside the box, which was curled towards the top corner only to be clawed away by the Georgian goalkeeper.

The second half was a contest between a collection of skilled, but not terribly team orientated individuals, aka Georgia, and a well drilled but not terribly skilful Gibraltar. A goalkeeping error and a slightly dubious penalty saw the Georgians run away with a 3-0 win, which was probably deserved on the run of play. Fair play to the Gibraltarians though, they do try to attack the opposition, rather than keeping ten men behind the ball for ninety minutes.

It never did rain, but the floodlights attracted hordes of insects, a feast for the local swallows who swooped in time and again. It was probably more productive than being a Gibraltar forward was likely to be...

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Day 5 - Borjomi and the little train that could...

Regular readers will be aware that I rather like trains. Admittedly, I am not one of those people who can tell you all about locomotives and stuff, fascinating though I’m sure it is, but I like to go on journeys, and trains allow you to get more of a feel for a place and an opportunity to see it up close.

There is what is described as a tourist train from Borjomi to Bakuriani, a ski town rather higher up in the mountains. It is slow, taking two hours or so to cover a journey which takes about half an hour by bus, but as I was on holiday...

Meet our locomotive, built in Czechoslovakia in 1966. Behind it are three reasonably simple carriages with large windows and plenty of space. The seats are comfortable enough, but you’re making this journey for the views.

The late morning service theoretically allows a connection with the early morning train from Tbilisi but, as our departure time approached, the Tbilisi train didn’t. I hope that there wasn’t anyone intending to make the connection, for we set off on time, without seemingly a thought of waiting.

The slowness is a by-product of the general “upness” of the route, which winds around and around as it gains altitude, often seeming to double back on itself. And it’s rather neglected too, with the station buildings in various states of decay. Indeed, the only money that appears to have been spent is on some spectacular new hats for the stationmasters - they appear inordinately proud of them.

It became apparent quite quickly that our conductor had something of an eye for the main chance. Occasionally, passengers would disembark at a station and be escorted to the locomotive for a ride in the cab. Unfortunately, not being particularly pretty, I didn’t get my hopes up. But it was a lovely ride, with some gorgeous countryside and, for the connoisseur of railway stations, some interesting architecture.

We got to Bakuriani, albeit somewhat later than scheduled, leaving me about three quarters of an hour to briefly explore the town, find a snack lunch, and get back to the station.

The return journey was for standing in the covered open ends of the carriages, taking pictures and enjoying the mountain air. Until Tba, that was. The train driver had caught my eye and indicated that I should spend some time in the cab. I didn’t hesitate.

It’s clear that this is a way for the train crew to pad what is probably a pretty small wage, although I suspect it breaks the routine too. After all, the train is moving at about 10 mph, and they drive the train up and back once a day. They offer to photograph you at the controls, give you a stool to sit on whilst you travel, allow you to take all the photos you want. What could be better?

I left them 10 Lari, which might have been overly generous, but I didn’t care. It was worth it for the fun alone, and the return train fare had only been 4 Lari...

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Day 4 - Tbilisi to Borjomi, and a value for money train ride...

I’d rather lost track of this, but perhaps I ought to catch up before moving onwards...

It was very early in the morning in Tbilisi, and even earlier according to my body clock, but when the alarm went off at 5.20 a.m., I was ready to go. Better still, my hotel was too, for when I went to checkout, they had very efficiently arranged a picnic breakfast for me. And yes, it did appear to have enough food to feed three people, but I was hardly going to complain.

My taxi whisked me through the empty streets of Tbilisi to the main station, I went to the ticket office as indicated the night before, and asked for a one way ticket to Borjomi. Two Lari, I was told, the equivalent of about 56p. That seemed unlikely, but sure enough, the ticket said Borjomi, and I silently expressed amazement as I headed to the platform.

Now you might wonder what you get for 2 Lari, and the answer is, well, an aging but reasonably comfortable seat on a train which travels rather slower than its aerodynamic design implies. We travelled reasonably steadily as far as Khashuri on the main line, and I began to wonder how the whole journey could take its scheduled four hours or so.

All became clear as we left Khashuri and headed up the single track branch line. I don’t know if it comes down to a lack of maintenance, or the nature of the track, but we proceeded up the valley at about 10 mph, stopping occasionally in remote spots to drop off or pick up who knows. It was, indeed, the sort of journey where, if you knew the route, you could probably get off, run a bit, and pick up the train further along the route.

But we did eventually get to Borjomi, and I headed to my hotel, the rather extravagant Crowne Plaza. Unsurprisingly, given how early I was, my room wasn’t available, so I left my luggage and set off into the Mineral Water Park.

Borjomi is famous for its water, which tastes not unlikely Vichy’s St-Yorre, i.e. slightly salty, and can be found everywhere in Georgia and beyond. And thus, it is a tourist attraction, where you can take the waters as you stroll up the valley of a tributary of the River Mtkvari, try the fairground rides and enjoy the greenery. However, if you’re a bit hardier, and have some decent walking shoes, you can walk rather further up the valley to the thermal pools.

It was a nice day, and I had some time to kill, so I set off. It was a bit warmer than I had thought, and rather further than the signs implied, but it was a nice walk, and I eventually reached the Tsars Thermal Baths, which looked like a rather nice spot, filled with locals for the most part. I hadn’t brought swimwear with me, unfortunately, so I turned round and walked back down the valley for a bite of lunch and some pampering.

I’d booked a two hour Ayurvedic session, on the basis that they had a Keralan masseur and the chances of my finding one much closer than Georgia was fairly remote.

It was every bit as good as the spa menu promised, and I spent the evening on the balcony of my hotel room, as an electrical storm lit up the night sky....