UK Parliament ponders shift from Westminster

DAVID STRINGER
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The 315-foot (96-meter)-high clock tower which houses the Big Ben bell is framed by a tree on Parliament Square opposite the Palace of Westminster, London, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012. British officials are marking the renaming of Parliament’s iconic clock tower to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s 60th year on the throne. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow on Wednesday unveiled a new name plaque designating the structure as Elizabeth Tower. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

LONDON (AP) — Welcome to Eastminster?

After hosting record-breaking athletes and jubilant crowds, east London's Olympic Park could find its next tenants are British lawmakers who may have to temporarily quit their storied home amid major repairs to the centuries-old complex.

House of Commons lawmaker John Thurso told colleagues Thursday that officials are considering how best to handle badly needed improvements at the Palace of Westminster to remove asbestos, improve weatherproofing and upgrade electric supplies and water.

He said about 1 billion pounds ($1.6 billion) of repairs had already been delayed. The medieval Palace of Westminster hosted legislative sessions from around the 13th century, but became Parliament's permanent home only in the 16th century after King Henry VIII moved out. Although the 900-year-old Westminster Hall is still in place, most other buildings in the complex were rebuilt after a major fire in 1834.

Both the House of Commons and the House of Lords — Britain's unelected upper chamber — meet at the palace, hosting Queen Elizabeth II once a year in a lavish ceremony.

Lawmakers last moved from their traditional chambers when bombs fell on Parliament during World War II, setting the Commons on fire. Legislators returned only in 1950, after the House of Commons was rebuilt.

Thurso said if lawmakers left Westminster and held sessions elsewhere, the repairs could likely be completed in two to three years. Trying to carry out improvements during Parliament's vacation periods would stretch the work to at least 10 years, he said.

"I have found that it is usually better to take two or more years and get the job done than to be inconvenienced and unable to work properly for 10 years," said Thurso, who formerly worked as a hotelier.

Meg Hillier, a lawmaker with the opposition Labour Party, urged legislators to relocate to the now-vacant media center at Olympic Park. She represents Hackney South and Shoreditch, close to the Olympic Park.

"It could happily house Parliament in the interim while the work is done," Hillier said.

Conservative lawmaker Michael Fabricant insisted that Birmingham in central London, Britain's second largest city, should host Parliament during any break from London.

Thurso said all options for a possible relocation "can be placed on the table."

"Such a project would be a major undertaking and a final decision will not be taken for some time," he told the House of Commons.