IN September, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry and Tree Planting (APPG) met online for the eighth time to discuss ‘UK Timber and the Palace of Westminster Restoration’.

Host David Lee opened proceedings and handed over to APPG chair Ben Lake MP, who welcomed attendees by saying, “We discuss the England Trees Action Plan regularly, and we will hear from Caroline Ayre, Confor’s National Manager for England, for the next steps in the industry response. Our main discussion today focusses on UK timber and the Palace of Westminster restoration. I am in a different office today, so I can attest that the work is ongoing. The palace is an iconic building, falling apart for a number of years.

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“The ‘Restoration and Renewal Programme’ (R&R) has been established to lead on a complex programme of works: ensuring it continues to serve as home of the UK parliament through the next century and beyond. Visitors are impressed with Westminster Hall, with its magnificent hammer beam oak roof built in the reign of King Richard II. Wood is used extensively throughout the palace and its buildings, including the House of Commons chamber. So how can UK timber be used in the works as the project unfolds?”

The programme is still in its early stages. Noah Bold, lead sustainability manager of the Restoration and Renewal Delivery Authority, set the scene. “The programme recognises that this is a working building and we want to encourage visitors. It is a heritage building, with significance not just in the building itself but in the events and actions that take place there. The programme is not just about restoring the palace, but also finding temporary homes for the House of Lords and removing and storing heritage artifacts during the renovation.

“In 1836, a public competition was held to design the new building, the criteria being in Gothic (or Elizabethan) style. Charles Barry won, teaming up with Augustus Pugin, who designed much of the interior. The first stone was laid in 1840. Construction was estimated to take six years, costing £725,000. It took 30 years, at a cost of £2.5 million and neither architect lived to see it finished. 

“Westminster Hall, first constructed in 1097, was the largest hall in Europe. In 1393, King Richard II commissioned the oak hammer beam roof, since considered to be the greatest creation of medieval architecture. As with our programme, materials from around the country were used in its construction, including oak from Hampshire, Hertfordshire and Surrey.”

The hall has since played a central role in British political life, hosting the trial of King Charles I and Guy Fawkes and latterly speeches from Nelson Mandela, Barak Obama and others.

Forestry Journal: Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, internally the Palace covers 16 football pitches, accommodating 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases, 65 different floor levels, three miles of passageways and no compliant step-free entrances. “Only one lift complies with modern safety and accessibility standards," said Noah.

“The building is falling apart faster that it can be repaired. It has antiquated heating, ventilation, water and drainage systems. Steam pipes run alongside electrical cables.

Since 2017, 40,000 problems have been reported, 250 miles of cabling have been replaced and annual spending on maintenance is roughly £120 million a year. The longer essential works are left, the greater the risk of failure, as we saw with Notre Dame. To mitigate fire risks, wardens patrol the building 24 hours a day.”

Similar to the 2012 Olympics, the programme is governed by a two-tier structure. A sponsor body, a single client accountable to parliament, sets the strategic direction (business case) with a detailed and costed R&R plan (end of 2022). A ‘delivery authority’, responsible for the design and delivery of the works (including procuring and managing contractors and the supply chain), is accountable to the sponsor body.

The R&R programme began in 2012. In 2021, a strategic review (to test whether, during the intervening years, anything warranted a change in approach) concluded that MPs should remain housed in Richmond House (Whitehall) and the Lords should remain in the Queen Elizabeth II (QEII) Conference Centre (Broad Sanctuary).

The R&R programme follows the ‘RIBA plans of work’ (eight stages from 0 to 7) and is currently midway through RIBA stage 2 (concept design). Specifying types or quantities of materials comes in stage 3 (spatial coordination), after the business case (voted on and selected by MPs) is issued.

Recent consultations have determined the public believes restoration is important, that energy demands should be reduced, apprenticeships should be invested in and that sustainability should be inherent throughout.

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The programme’s suite of ‘sustainable’ policies target biodiversity (protecting what exists and encouraging net gain), carbon’ (parliament reaching net zero through energy reduction and renewable resources) and the circular economy (reducing demand for virgin material is part of these ambitions). They ensure that skills and apprenticeships (creating high-quality jobs, skills and apprenticeships), maximizing social value and procurement (fair and in a manner that drives sustainable approaches to natural resources and economic opportunity) benefit all regions throughout the UK.

An outward-facing sustainability programme, to be written during the coming year, should help deliver on sustainable timber procurement. “Timber, an inherently sustainable construction material, is key in fighting climate change. Mismanagement in supply chains can negatively impact forest conservation, impact climate change and our reputation, as previous negative news coverage has shown.”

Noah Bold was manager of timber procurement for the construction of the 2012 Olympic and Para-Olympic Games venues: “100 per cent of that timber was certified legal and sustainable by FSC and PEFC standards. It was the first time they had worked together and the largest construction project in the world to achieve such certification. The key was creating a ‘timber supply panel’ – 16 suppliers contractually obliged to supply legal and sustainable timber.” Had they not, “they would have been removed from the panel and suffered reputational damage”.

The focus of parliament’s R&R programme is on restoration and adopting a circular approach: repairing and restoring existing timbers where possible: procuring recycled or reclaimed timber from heritage organisations (UK-wide); buying locally-produced (UK-wide) certified timber.

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“Historic England informed us that Baltic pine forests provided alternatives to expensive oak and can found in most historic buildings built between 1750 to 1900. We can source UK-grown pine if needed and will engage with Grown in Britain and the wider industry when preparing for the procurement phase.”

Approaches to carbon reduction will involve offsetting: engaging with groups and projects that physically remove carbon from the air, such as reforestation, afforestation and agroforestry.

Closing the presentation, Noah said: “We hope to be able to share more within the next year, engaging with the timber industry on restoration and products that meet our circular economy ambitions and procuring sustainable timber in a heritage context. We are interested to hear your thoughts on the challenges we face and anything else that we should be considering at this stage.”

Forestry Journal: Ben Lake MPBen Lake MP

Opening the Q&A, David Lee asked Noah: “In terms of specification and procurement processes, is there a rough timeline in place?”

NB: “Following the business case being issued (end 2022), MPs then debate and select an option. Moving to RIBA stage 3 in 2023, we look at the materials and volume specifications, engaging with the market on supply routes and suitable supply chains. Probably in 2023.”

Lord Colgrain asked: “Is there merit in exploring something similar to what happened with the Globe Theatre, a prestigious project and important to the nation, when UK landowners were asked to donate timber? I think there would be a willingness to do this, and a considerable cost saving.”

NB: “I think the project would support that, in line with social value aspirations, spreading the benefits and a stake in it around the UK.”

Fenning Welstead (Goldcrest Land & Forestry Group) asked: “Much of the timber in the Palace of Westminster is hardwood. Is there any indication of whether we have sufficient homegrown supply of the right quality?”

NB: “It is too early to know what we need. A question for you on this call, is the UK timber industry in a position to be able to supply what we need?”

To clarify, David Lee asked: “Have we a strategic supply of hardwoods?”

Caroline Ayre encouraged industry attendees to answer, reminding them that HMS Victory is currently being renovated, and tendering for timber is imminent.

Dainis Dauksta (Woodknowledge Wales) responded: “There might be a big broadleaf resource in the UK, but it is unmanaged and not of the correct grade to use in a prestigious project. High-grade softwood is more likely to be found than hardwood (over-used in ship building). You may need to think in different ways, initiating glulam manufacture at some stage.”

Jez Ralph (Timber Strategies) responded: “HMS Victory have been looking at the ethical materiality decisions around the conservation of significant historic artifacts, considering modern techniques and laminating to be able to retain use of UK timber. Appointing a timber expert as a go-between between themselves and the suppliers should ease that process. Using solid timber may be quite difficult. Bringing in modern technology (laminating and finger-jointing) makes it more possible.”