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News & opinion

9 MAY 2018

Restoring the past, building the future

Emma Wharton, FRICS, is Client and Customer Director for the Palace of Westminster’s Restoration and Renewal Programme at the UK Parliament.

Emma is responsible for engaging stakeholders so that she can communicate their requirements to the programme’s architects and designers. This will enable these teams to re-develop the Palace of Westminster as a 21st Century Parliament.

Here Emma explains how FM will help to transform the Palace of Westminster into a modern workplace and public building that will serve the UK for many years to come.

How did you start in FM?

I grew up in rural Suffolk and didn’t ever consider working in a city. When I was younger my only plan was to do jobs that I thought were really interesting, so that ambition has worked out well for me I suppose!

Early on in my career I became a strategy consultant for HOK architects. I worked with the House of Commons, helping with its estates and accommodation strategy and doing very early work into the feasibility of decant. I also worked on the Guardian newspaper’s move from Farringdon to Kings Place, and I did a lot of change management work for clients including American Express. This was focused on leveraging facilities to increase the productivity of the workforce, so I guess it was my first FM role, even though, at the time, I thought I was working in design.

After HOK I moved to the House of Commons, where I was accommodation manager. There are about 2,000 employees who help run the House of Commons and I was there to ensure that their workspace was enabling them to do that job effectively.

A little later I went on a secondment to the Cabinet Office, where I developed the pipeline of construction that Government has planned for the next 20 years. It was my job to make this pipeline very visible, so the construction industry could remain confident during a difficult period.

From here I joined the Government Property Unit where one of my responsibilities was to set up the British Standard Institute’s publicly available specification for Smart Working. This showed how to leverage the workplace for the benefit of the business and was the first British Standard to do that. So, that’s when I really moved into FM!

Describe your current role

After the Government Property Unit, I moved back to Parliament to work on the restoration of the Palace of Westminster. The purpose is to tackle the massive amount of work that needs to be done to protect the heritage of the Palace, and to ensure that it continues to be the home of a modern parliament for the 21st Century.

At its core, much of the mechanical and electrical throughout the entire site dates back to Victorian times. Over the years, to keep Parliament running, layers and layers of works have been installed one of the top of another until we no longer really understand what’s what. So, we are running a massive risk of failure, which could disrupt Parliament.

The fact that MPs and Peers agreed to move out while the works are undertaken enables us to get on and deliver as quickly and cost effectively as possible. My role for the past three years has been to identify where both Houses could move to while the restoration is taking place. 

Now I am Client and Customer Director for the Restoration and Renewal Programme, which means I am responsible for developing the requirements for what the Palace of Westminster should be like for a modern Parliament, and for the decant locations. Essentially, it is a brief for the architects, which is enormously exciting.

Across Parliament we have a diverse workforce and we aim to provide a positive, inclusive working environment where people are valued for the skills and experience that they bring to work.

Parliament had a reputation for being a male-dominated space. Is this still true?

In terms of who we employ, Parliament has a very good ratio of women to men. It is an equal opportunities employer and, in fact, when we released our Gender Pay Gap report the mean pay gap for the House of Commons was 1.7% compared to the average pay gap of 13% in public bodies. In one area, Parliamentary Digital Service, the mean gap was -5.21%. In this case, women had a pay lead over men due to the number of women holding more senior positions.

In estates, typically, there are more men than women. I will often be the only woman in a high-level meeting, but I don’t see that as a disadvantage. Rather I'm part of a positive change that is happening over time and hope in a small way to be a role model.

However, rather than concentrating just on gender, I think that diversity is absolutely essential in the workplace if we are to see good decision making. Across Parliament we have a diverse workforce and we aim to provide a positive, inclusive working environment where people are valued for the skills and experience that they bring to work. Our aim is to be representative of the society we serve.

Why is good training critical?

Training is important because new technology is presenting opportunities for a real step-change in how we manage our buildings. Raising awareness among facilities managers who have operational roles can be challenging because these people are on site and in the thick of it the majority of the time. Getting them engaged about the evolving landscape before introducing training is the key to helping those managers upskill.

What does being a Fellow of RICS mean to you?

I feel really honoured to be a Fellow of the RICS. It was amazing to be recognised for my contributions in my career so far, and for what I am doing at the Palace of Westminster.  I hope I can help shine a spotlight on FM to change preconceptions of what it is. What was sometimes thought of as a rather bland sector is quite the opposite – it full of interesting career opportunities where you can make a tangible, positive change to people's daily lives in the workplace. As a Fellow, I hope I can raise awareness of that.