How much would the Palace of Westminster cost in today’s money?

That’s a tricky question to answer with real precision, due to the different factors that affect relative worth between the past and the present. But it’s possible to reach a ball-park figure. Let’s take a step back.

On 16 October 1834, the medieval palace with its later additions that housed the United Kingdom parliament, including its two main debating chambers in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, was virtually destroyed by a devastating fire.

After a public competition, the architect chosen to design a new Palace of Westminster was Charles Barry, assisted (particularly on the interior design, fixtures and fittings) by Augustus Pugin. Barry estimated that it would take six years to build, at a cost of £725,000. In fact, it took 30 years to build at a cost of a little over £2m — by comparison with which, the Scottish Parliament’s delays and cost overruns look a tad less significant. Like Enric Miralles more than a century later, neither Barry nor Pugin lived to see their work completed in 1870.

So let’s analyse that cost figure of £2m. According to MeasuringWorth, the most appropriate indicator by which to measure relative worth in the case of a project like the construction of the Palace of Westminster is the share of GDP:

A “project”. If the amount you are asking about is the construction of a church, the cost of a war, or a new highway, again the context is important. If the question is how much it cost compared to the present cost of materials or labor, you would use the GDP deflator and/or the wage or earning index. However, you may be more interested in how important this project was to the community or the country. In the past there were less amounts of materials and labor available for all projects. So to measure the importance of this project (compared to other projects) use the share of GDP indicator.

Using the share of GDP indicator with the MeasuringWorth caculator tells us that £2 million in 1870, the year of completion of the new Palace of Westminster, translates to some £2¼ billion in 2004, the year of completion of the new Scottish Parliament. Granted, the United Kingdom Parliament is a rather larger affair, but still…

More recently, the UK government spent £235m on Portcullis House (pictured below, to the left of “Big Ben”), an office building that opened in 2001 for just 210 Members of Parliament and their staff. £2m of that total was spent on electric blinds, £150,000 on decorative fig trees, and for each MP, £440 on a reclining chair — just one item out of the £15,000 lavished on furniture for each of their offices.

£414m for an entire parliament complex at Holyrood, compared with £235m for a luxury office block at Westminster.

It makes you think, doesn’t it?

Portcullis House, to the left of the London Eye and Big Ben
Photo: Arpingstone
From the Wikimedia Commons

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