Britain's corridors of power stink, and it's not because of politics

Complaints of bad smells in the Palace of Westminster and surrounding buildings have surged this year.
Complaints of bad smells in the Palace of Westminster and surrounding buildings have surged this year.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

LONDON (WASHINGTON POST) - There's a stench coming from the UK Parliament - and it's not the politics.

Complaints of bad smells in the Palace of Westminster and surrounding buildings have surged this year, as the Victorian plumbing gives up under the strain of 14,500 politicians and staff - let alone the hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Many of them have some shocking tales to tell.

"I had a colleague call and say there was water running down his wall," Mr Mark Tami, a Labour MP who sits on the House of Commons Administration Committee, said in an interview.

"But it wasn't water, it was urine."

On another occasion, a ceiling collapsed on party workers in a staff office on the sprawling parliamentary estate.

"They all had to have Hepatitis jabs," Mr Tami said. "There was a toilet above it and the pipe had broken."

Sewage had piled up in the ceiling cavity, he said.

The scale of the problem is well known to Mr Tami in his role. Toilets block up "all the time", he said.

The men's facilities in the press gallery, where reporters work, spring a leak every few weeks, and there's often a large puddle on the floor.

 
 

All this is in addition to the mice and moth infestations and damp problems to be expected in a 19th century riverside building.

"The Palace of Westminster is a historic working building in urgent need of restoration and where maintenance issues are identified, we act quickly to address them," the House of Commons communications office said in an e-mail.

The current plan is for MPs to move away in the mid-2020s to enable restoration work, at an estimated cost of 5.7 billion pounds (S$9.90 billion).

Complaints about smells have almost doubled this year, according to responses to freedom of information requests by Bloomberg.

For the House of Lords, which has responsibility for the 1,000-year-old Westminster Hall, 23 were logged by May 7, on track for 66 this year - compared with 22 in 2018.

The House of Commons, which also includes a collection of office buildings across the road, recorded 52 complaints by the same date - an annualised rate of 149, compared with 97 last year.

One area of concern is particularly delicate: Parliament's entry to the London Underground, or subway system.

The passage is used by homeless sleepers, and veteran Labour MP Barry Sheerman said he's worked with a local charity to try to alleviate the problem.

But he blamed other users for the smell in the passage, which previously continued under the road but has been blocked off in recent months, creating a dead-end.

That's reduced ventilation and made it more attractive to drunken club-goers.

"The big problem is not the rough sleepers, it's men urinating against the wall after a night out," Mr Sheerman said.

It's particularly unpleasant for the security guards, one of whom complained that air wafting through the revolving door smells like a "scented urinal".

The refurbishment can't come soon enough.

In the meantime, Parliament must become more "welcoming" for visitors, Mr Sheerman said.

"This is a royal palace," he said. "It should be clean and visitors shouldn't have to approach it through an entrance that is dirty, scruffy and smelly."