Westminster's ugly truth

The Palace of Westminster in London is home to the British Parliament.
The Palace of Westminster in London is home to the British Parliament.PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

Congested ventilation shafts and toilet failures are among some of the issues faced by London's famed Palace of Westminster

LONDON • The Palace of Westminster in London, with its Big Ben clock, is postcard-pretty.

The home of Parliament, it is one of the most photographed buildings in the world. But inside are ugly truths, its caretakers say.

While its bones, the superstructure, are solid enough, it is rotting from the inside, its water and waste pipes sclerotic, its ventilation shafts congested and its neural networks - the communication, electric and fire systems - nearly shot.

Earlier this year, after a decade of debate, British lawmakers approved one of the most ambitious restoration projects of the modern age, a US$5-billion (S$6.6-billion) scheme that would see Parliament decamp to nearby buildings for six years.

The work is scheduled to begin in 2025, with the hope that, some time in the early 2030s, Parliament will return to its home.

The Westminster complex, which covers 3.2ha, has 1,100 rooms and almost 4.8km of passageways. Thousands of staff and lawmakers pass through every day and one million visitors turn up each year.

"Westminster does feel like a living presence, an organic machine for making legislation," said Ms Caroline Shenton, former director of the Parliamentary Archives.

But its current state is "a legacy of generations of neglect" by previous governments. "Instead of ever removing the obsolete, they just added to it," she noted.

Engineers say there had been so many ad-hoc repairs and workarounds over the past half-century, no one was sure what went where.

Today's Westminster still rests on its 1840s' massive raft of hand-mixed concrete 3.9m deep. But the complex was built for a different era - with 600 coal fireplaces, now all replaced by steam heating.

The Westminster of the mid-1800s was a marvel of its day, using cutting-edge technology, such as air-conditioning, which never quite worked, freezing everyone in winter and stifling them in summer.

Mr Tom Healey, director of the restoration and renewal programme, said Westminster was the "best example of Victorian Gothic architecture in the world", but which now has the highest energy bills in England. "We have thousands and thousands of bronze windows, none of which closes. It's a terrible waste of heat," he added.

Repairs have been delayed for years because Parliament did not want to pay for them, and also because of the potential disruption.

Studies and committee reports over the past decade warned that major renovations are at least 40 years overdue. The inquiries revealed dozens of incidents that could have led to catastrophe.

Today, fire crews wander the premises 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There were a half-dozen minor but worrying blazes last year, hundreds of toilet failures and a crack in a main sewage pipe.

"We can't fix it as fast as it falls apart," Mr Healey said. "The Palace of Westminster is 150 years old and every building has a kind of life cycle. It's time."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2018, with the headline 'Westminster's ugly truth'. Print Edition | Subscribe