There’s nothing that quite says London as much as the sight of Big Ben towering over the River Thames as tourists look for that ultimate selfie from vantage points on Westminster. But for the next three years, the Queen Elizabeth Tower — as the structure is formerly known — is shrouded in scaffolding. So too is the adjoining Palace of Westminster, the sprawling nearly four hectare neogothic complex that’s home to the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and the seat of government for the United Kingdom.
Part of the complex dates back more than 900 years, built by William II during his reign between 1087 and 1100. But for modern day visitors, the area is one vast building site, sheathed in plastic as work gets under way on a restoration project that’s currently valued at £4 billion (Dh19.3 billion) and may last until the mid-2030s. As part of the unprecedented project, both the lower House of Parliament and the upper House of Lords will be moving to other temporary accommodation in central London.
Right now, the quarterly signature bongs from Big Ben, the iconic clock that sets the time for so much of London and indeed national life, are silent. And right now too, all of the preparation work under way is only setting the stage for the massive renovation that’s schedule to begin fully in about five years’ time.
“We don’t have a detailed schedule yet,” Tom Healey, the Programme Director for the project, tells Weekend Review.
Healey has worked in a variety of roles for the past 25 years in the UK Parliament. Prior to becoming the Programme Director, he was the Clerk of the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster and has served as Clerk of several select committees. He has also served as the Clerk at the Table, sitting in the chamber of the Commons to provide procedural advice during its sittings.
“Even to get to the point where we start the work, there’s so much to do in terms of finding alternative temporary accommodation, fitting all of that out, consultation with Members of Parliament and Peers and staff and, of course the general public as well. Lots of people have views on how the building should be looked after. If you invest time and money in the planning and design phase, you save time and money in the building phase.”
It’s a daunting task, one that means rebuilding the seat of government of the nation of about 60 million people and looking after a building that’s steeped in history.
“For me personally, it’s a tremendous privilege after 25 years working in Parliament on the front line of parliamentary business to be in charge of what is a once in a generation, possibly longer than that,” he says. “It’s an opportunity not just to fix and repair and maintain the building. The building was built for a Victorian parliament which is very different from a modern parliament. If you think of what parliament does now, we do a lot more public outreach, a lot more visitors to the building, parliament is doing a lot more digitally — we use iPads to record votes instead of paper, which is quite a recent development. There’s a lot of really exciting opportunities to adapt the building to support Parliament better in the way it works in the 21st century and beyond.”
Renovating and restoring such an iconic building poses numerous challenges like no other building site in the UK — or likely worldwide.
The last Parliament building to stand on the site was mostly destroyed by a huge fire in October of 1834, and the present building was built over the following 15 years or so.
“The Palace of Westminster is just over 150 years old and when it was built, it was built with a very innovative ventilation system that provided cooling and heating,” Healey explains. “The Victorians were obsessed with the idea of clean air and they thought that a lot of diseases were airborne. Throughout the building there’s a big network of voids and empty spaces which go horizontally and vertically and take up about one-fifth of the whole volume of the building. Through the 20th century, we used those spaces to store all of the modern systems. We installed gas for kitchens, steam heating, electricity, lighting, data lines, telephones, security systems and fire alarms. They were all packed into these Victorian ventilation voids. And over the years, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain those systems.”
The building was also badly damaged during the German blitz of London during the Second World War.
“Because we have to do all of the maintenance work around parliamentary sittings, it has to be done in evenings, weekends and recesses. Often work is done in a tearing hurry. Something has to be replaced over the course of a weekend and over many decades of this patchwork mend approach, we ended up with a completely chaotic blend of systems that keep the building going. And they are past, in many cases, beyond the end of their lives, and a lot were installed in the first time in the 1940s. Those systems are 70 odd years old and they needed complete replacement. And the only way to do that really is to strip them all out in one go and reinstall them from scratch.”
The building is built from limestone sourced from Yorkshire in the north of England. There it weathers quite well in the natural Victorian environment. But London’s heavily polluted air from the last century has begun to wreak havoc.
“The building on the outside has that nice sort of golden brown colour, but if you look at a lot of the inner courtyard areas, they are black,” Healey says. “Because we cleaned the outside in the 1980s but we didn’t clean the interiors. Those black deposits cause the stone to decay over a period of years because they contain acid, and eventually that damages it, so we also need to do quite a lot of stonework cleaning.”
And even before the main work begins in five years, there’s still a huge amount of work under way.
“The things we’re doing now are the things that can’t wait,” he says. “We have seven projects going on at the moment. We’re replacing all the cast iron rooves. The rooves of the palace are made with large cast iron panels that weigh about 100 kilogrammes each. They are about 150 years old and are completely covered in rust. They’re being taken off and are being shipped to South Yorkshire where they are sandblasted and then resprayed and brought back down and refitted. That programme is nearing completion.”
Like with any building project, there are challenges but none quite on the scale of fixing up Westminster.
“We’re doing some work on the roof of Westminster Hall, which is one of the oldest bits in the Palace of Westminster and was built by William II, son of William the Conqueror and it survived the fire of 1834,” Healey says. “That’s a particularly historically important bit of the palace.”
And there’s Big Ben.
The work on the tower involves conservation of the exterior stonework but also reinforcing and replacing the iron belfry — there’s a kind of iron box there that holds the bells that was about to collapse — and that’s all being replaced.
Original Victorian tiles inside have reached the end of their life and are worn away. And then there’s other bits of masonry conservation just to make sure that the masonry is safe.
When the project fully gets going, the House of Lords will be moving to the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre in nearby Parliament Square, and the MPs and their chamber will be relocated to the Richmond Building in Whitehall, about a half-kilometre from the current building.
“We’re always conscious that we may open up a new area and find something — usually it’s asbestos — we know that there are the remains if the medieval palace underneath and we haven’t done any digging yet,” Healey says.
So, no kegs of gunpowder in the basement dating back to Guy Fawkes plot to destroy the building in 1605?
“No,” he laughs. “None that we’re aware off.
Mick O’Reilly is a Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.