Renewal plans set to silence Westminster’s Big Ben

By on 27/04/2016
The UK Parliament Building Photo: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

The chimes of the UK’s iconic Big Ben bell, which tolls every hour in the Houses of Parliament’s Elizabeth Tower, are to fall silent as the 160-year-old tower undergoes a major refurbishment programme.

A £3.5m scaffold is to be erected around the 1854 tower early next year, beginning a £29m project to refurbish the exterior paintwork, the interior plastering, and the clock mechanism and faces, along with the five bells and the iron frame that contains them.

The three-year refurbishment project has been announced in advance of a decision on a proposed restoration and renewal programme covering the rest of the Palace of Westminster. A joint committee of Parliamentarians was established in July 2015, and is expected to make recommendations in June – but this massive scheme is expected to cost at least £3bn, and won’t start until after the 2020 election. Keeper of the great clock Steve Jaggs told Global Government Forum that the Elizabeth Tower project will ensure that at least one part of the Houses of Parliament remains visible and functional during that huge refurbishment job.

Some 12,000 visitors climb the 334 steps to the belfry every year: to improve safety and the visitor experience, the plans include installing a lift and WCs, and replacing a brick-built 1940s stairwell housing with a glass wall providing views of the bells. A further 65 steps, running up a Victorian iron spiral staircase, lead to the ‘Ayrton light’; this shines when Parliament is sitting, and will also be refurbished.

Jaggs told Global Government Forum that there may be periods when the clock and bells are out of action. “But we’ll run the bells for as long as we can during the period of the contract,” he said. “And the bells will always chime on new year’s night and on Remembrance Sunday!”

Nonetheless, the clock may have to be stopped for four months, and the bells for several weeks at a time. “Our in-house clock-makers will be doing all the work on the clock,” said Jaggs, noting that this aspect of the restoration has been excluded from the tender.

The authorities also intend to replace the 112 75W bulbs lighting up the clock faces with LEDs, and hope they may be able to change the faces’ colours in future. “It would be nice if we could join in with periods of national celebration or mourning,” commented Jaggs.

Jaggs emphasised that the tower is stable: it hasn’t moved since the Jubilee line extension was dug beneath it in the 1990s, leaning just eight inches (20cm) over its 96m height. But the last major refurbishment project ran 1983-’85, and the structure and mechanisms are in urgent need of restoration.

The tower’s ingenious Victorian design has kept it structurally sound. The vast cast iron frame holding the bells isn’t fixed to the tower’s walls, so the bells can chime without sending vibrations throughout the building; and the five huge bells – Big Ben alone weighs 13.7 tonnes – remain fixed rather than swinging, limiting the shock during their 96 daily chimes.

Nonetheless, water seeping in through the clock faces and the 20th century asphalt belfry floor is damaging the walls, whilst the original lime plaster was painted during a botched previous refurbishment – creating condensation that is causing further damage. Parliamentary staff intend to remove the paint and repair the lime plaster, and hope that the asphalt may conceal the original slate floor – which can then be restored.

The Elizabeth Tower is a Grade I listed building within a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and all the proposed alterations must be cleared with watchdog Historic England and Westminster City Council.

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About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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