The houses of Parliament are falling down, falling down, falling down

Members of Britain’s Parliament have been arguing about whether to run away from home.

Why? Well, they come from a broken home. The Palace of Westminster, where they meet, is without too much exaggeration falling apart. To give a fairly random example, on April 22, a stone angel dropped a chunk of stone some 230 feet (that’s 70 meters, or in technical terms, a long damn way) to the ground. If this was the angel’s opinion of the government’s immigration policy (rough summary: we only want immigrants who are just like us, and we don’t really want them either), or on what it’s doing to the National Health Service or public services in general, I couldn’t agree more. Either one is enough to make the angels weep. Also enough to make the angels throw blocks of stone.

I don’t know how much the stone weighed. Enough to flatten a government, but angels have lousy aim, more’s the pity.

Irrelevant photo: a daffodil after the rain.

Westminster Palace isn’t–as the British measure these things–old, but it’s old enough to need £3.9 billion in repairs. Give or take a few hundred million, because the costs always escalate. But why should friends quibble about money, especially small amounts?

Let’s do a bit of history before we talk about what’s broken:

The first palace on the site was built in 1016,

Whether 1016 is a start date or a completion date, I haven’t a clue–construction slow back then–but it happened so long time ago that we don’t really need to know.

Then the Normans conquered the country. They looked the palace over and said, “Nice place. We’ll take it.”

Only they said it in French.

That building burned down in 1512, under Henry VIII. Fire is not a slow process, so one year more than covers it. It was rebuilt, but Henry’s eye had wandered–he had a short attention span–and he’d moved to a different palace. It stopped being a royal residence and was used by Parliament and the royal law courts.

It doesn’t sound like the place was a good fit for Parliament even then. The Lords met in what had been the queen’s chamber, then moved into a larger hall when the George III expanded the peerage and they couldn’t all stuff themselves in any longer. The Commons didn’t have a chamber of its own at first because they were, you know, commoners. They were supposed to feel lucky that they were allowed in at all.

The new building burned in 1834. The replacement incorporated what survived of the old palace (I think that’s medieval replacement; as far as I can figure out, nothing was left of the older old palace) into a gothic-style monster that spreads along the Thames.

“Monster” isn’t a comment on the architecture. I know zilch about architecture. It’s just big.

William IV (no, I don’t know anything about him either; ask me about commas; I’m pretty good with commas) didn’t like the new building and when it was almost completed he offered it to Parliament, which said thanks, Bill, but it really doesn’t work for us either.

But it turns out that nothing else worked for them either, and tradition exerts a powerful pull, so against its better judgment, Parliament moved in.

In 1835, the king opened parliament by assuring them that the fire had been accidental. Who said it hadn’t been? No one that I can find reference to, but there’s nothing like denying a crime to make the world wonder.

And there we’ll leave Parliament for a century or so, with its members following arcane traditions and running around in fancy robes and silly costumes.

During World War II, the building was bombed fourteen separate times. That was not by accident.

Which brings us to the present day, when it’s not London Bridge that’s falling down but Westminster Palace.

What’s wrong with the place? The roof leaks. Sorry, make that roofs, because it has loads of them. The gutters and downpipes are corroding. The stonework’s decaying. Angels are throwing things. It’s full of asbestos. The plumbing’s a disaster. Very few of the 4,000 windows close well. “The heating, ventilation, water, drainage and electrical systems are now extremely antiquated and improvements to fire safety are needed.”

What’s more, the building was made of Anston limestone, which was cheap and easy to carve but it decays quickly, and time’s caught up with it.

One source says the House of Commons only has room for one wheelchair. Another says wheelchair users have to sit in the middle of the chamber in both the Lords and the Commons. Take your choice. Either way, it’s a problem.

Other than that, everything’s fine. Except for the “vast quantities of combustible materials. This and the huge network of ventilation shafts and floor voids [the architects] created to aid ventilation, had the unintended effect of creating ideal conditions for fire and smoke to spread throughout the building.”

The wiring hasn’t been replaced since the 1870s. If the steam pipes blow (they’re older than all of us put together and the steam puts them under pressure), they’ll scatter asbestos in all directions. Grease from the kitchen is leaking onto pipes that carry the electrical wires.

Oh, and there aren’t enough seats for all the MPs. It’s infested with mice. And it caught fire forty times between 2008 and 2012. Four or five people are always on fire patrol. A former cabinet minister called it a death trap. And did I mention the plumbing? It smells bad. And backs up regularly.

It’s not that no one’s tried to maintain the palace, but maintenance can only be done when Parliament isn’t in session and the repairs have been slower than the decay. And, of course, not enough money was dedicated to it. To get the place in working order, they’ll need to pack the Members of Parliament and the Lords into separate boxes (the Lords’ box is lined with ermine; the Commons is just, you know, a very nice box) and move them out so some real work can go on.

In February, against the advice of government ministers, who wanted to form a committee to think about preparing to get ready to study the situation, MPs voted to move out so the work can start.

A decisive move, only they’re still there. Moving out will take a full Act of Parliament, which is “unlikely to happen before 2025.” I think that means the repairs starting, not the act, although you couldn’t prove it by me. An Act of Parliament has to be approved by both houses and then the queen has to wave her magic feather over it. It doesn’t take seven years unless the queen’s trapped in amber.

Some older MPs, primarily Conservatives, don’t want to move out during the work because–or so say the younger MPs who favor the move–they don’t want to serve out their final years in temporary quarters. But staying while the repair work goes on around them could boost the cost to £5.7 billion and stretch the work out so it takes forty years.

If the place doesn’t fall down first.

Some MPs and Lords worry (and others hope) that a move would kill off a few of the more arcane rituals associated with Westminster. Like what? Like the speaker of the Commons opening the day’s session by parading to their meeting room (sorry–it’s called a chamber but I can’t seem to call it that), together with the trainbearer, the chaplain, the secretary, and the serjeant (that’s how they spell it) at arms, with I’m not sure which of them calling out, “Hats off, strangers.” Like each newly appointed speaker being dragged up to the speaker’s chair. Like the doorkeeper calling, “Who goes home?” at the end of the day’s session. Like placing boxes of snuff outside the Commons’ and Lords’ meeting rooms, or MPs having to place a prayer card on a seat to reserve it because (and we’re back to that again) there aren’t enough seats for them all to cram in.

Ah, but there’s more: One  elevator can’t be used when the Lords are voting, and there’s a staircase that only MPs can set foot on. And a blue carpet that you can cross but not loiter on. Plus a room where you’re sometimes allowed to speak and sometimes not and little hooks for MPs to hang up their swords. The Lords have ribbons for theirs.

How do you hang a sword on a ribbon? You’re on your own there. I’ve never tried.

Politically, voting either to move out or to stay is enough to set a politician’s skin twitching. Inevitably, the people who elected them will ask, “You just voted to spend how many billion pounds to spruce up your workplace?” But every year they put off the work adds something like £100 million to the cost.

This is complicated by the government’s inaction on the many high-rise apartment buildings around the country (they’re called tower blocks here) whose siding (called cladding) turns out to be flammable. This came to light when one, Grenfell Tower, burned to a tall and horrifying cinder ini June 2017, killing many of the residents. Cue government handwringing, pious statements, and long-lasting inaction.

But yes, quick pious statement and we’ll go back to the important things: Should the palace be rebuilt exactly as it is, only updated and functional? Or should changes be made?

Like what changes? Well, women MPs complain that the seating’s built for male-size bodies, leaving short women with their legs dangling. (Speaking as a short woman, I can testify: Your back hates you when you sit way that for long.) Or the bars. Do they keep them all?

What bars? Parliament must be the country’s most alcohol-soaked workplace. Once Lords and MPs have hung up their swords (or possibly before, I wouldn’t know), they have a choice of almost thirty bas. Not everyone can drink at all of them. Some are only for lords. Some are for MPs. Journalists drink at a different one. The mice drink at another. The Lords at one point declined to merge their champagne order with the Commons’. It would’ve saved money but they were afraid the champagne wouldn’t be as good.

The public subsidy for all that is $8 million. Exactly why we’ve changed from pounds to dollars for this is beyond me, but it’s okay because we’re bilingual here.

Alcoholism and embarrassing incidents are–well, let’s not say they’re common, let’s say they’re not uncommon. I’m not sure how much of a difference there is between the two but the second one sounds better.

In addition to the bars and cafeteria(s?), there’s a hairdresser, a gym, a florist, another bar, a post office, a travel office, more bars. . . . You’d hardly have to set your well-shod foot in the real world except to convince your constituents that you think only of them.The palace was built at a time when a gentleman belonged to a gentleman’s club, and it seemed natural to recreate that atmosphere.

In spite of the building’s perks and symbolism, some MPs would rather start over someplace else and have proposed building something new instead of rescuing the palace. It could have enough office space, room in the House of Commons for all the MPs,  and functional plumbing. The current building could become a museum, they say.

There’s also been some suggestion that politics might be less adversarial if the Commons’ meeting room were shaped like, say, a horseshoe instead of having ranks of benches facing each other. On the evidence of American politics, I wouldn’t hold out a lot of hope for that.

In the meantime, Big Ben–the big honkin’ clock at the top of the building’s tower–is in the process of being repaired to the tune of £61 million, which is twice the original estimate. The clock’s expected to stay silent until 2021

Why does that need to be done? Cracks in the masonry, leaks, rusting metal, not keeping good time, the possibility that clock itself could hurl itself to the sidewalk in despair.

Is it more pressing than fixing the rest of the building? I’m not sure, but it can be done without decanting–as they put it–the entire parliament and all its support workers into something resembling the real world.

84 thoughts on “The houses of Parliament are falling down, falling down, falling down

  1. Goodness, goodness. What a pickle. I like the idea of so many bars, though. Maybe this should be adopted in the U.S. Might soothe tempers and encourage politicians to sing songs and get along. On the other hand, it might make them more belligerent and encourage fist fights. Nothing is ever simple, is it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have read a report–possibly two–of some MP getting drunk enough to start a fight. How many we never hear about is anyone’s guess. We could, I suppose, hope anyone whose vote we don’t like would get drunk enough to pass out and do nothing for the remainder of his or her term, but I’m guessing alcoholism’s pretty well distributed. And the parties would hire someone to haul the drunks in long enough to vote for they wouldn’t much care what.

      And just to finish throwing water on your scheme, I’m pretty sure it’s only the British who sing when drunk. I’m not sure what Americans do. If I had to bet, I’d put my money on either start a fight or throw their arms around the nearest person and swear undying friendship of love, but I sure wouldn’t put any money on singing.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Since when did US lawmakers need an actual bar…but I remember a number of places that were the places to see those high nosed folkes back in the day. Probably one of my wierdest dates was with a Secret Service guy at a notable georgetown bar who never went anywhere without his weapon but had no qualms about asking me to carry it in my purse (handbag for Brits) and went on about hoping to be able to throw himself in front a bullet meant for POTUS. Ahhh the days of youthful but questionable dating.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I wonder how many secret service people today would say they are willing and eager to throw themselves in front of a bullet . Wonder where that young man is today… Wonder what his name was.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ll forward this to my civil engineering friends, if I may. They love a good laugh. From the title, though, I was hoping you’d explain just what the f- is going on in Parliament, where people seem to be changing places on Brexit like kindergarteners playing musical chairs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for forwarding it and for the suggestion, but making sense out of the politics of Brexit is beyond me. And, sadly, I tend to lose my sense of humor when I write political stuff. You need a certain distance, as if none of it mattered.


  3. I like the museum idea. Plus, all of the old fogeys could take on retirement jobs there as historians. That might not work though, they would all be at the front trading tickets for lots of money from the public.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Enjoyable read this sunny morn. A couple (oh several) thoughts come to mind.

    Being the avid reader of historical fiction…particularly that set in merry old England…I read several fictional accounts of the dastardly doings and doers who caused the 1834 fire. Murderous and treasonous plots you know that required burning of a certain room that went wrong. Each very entertaining but each ending with attributing the cause to a non murderous and non treasonous reason.

    Well, we do have all these giant estates on the National Trust because the owners could not maintain them and some are just hulls of the original. Perhaps Parliament can move and Westminster can become another attraction for London (there are after all so few). Or perhaps Disney would be interested in creating an indoor theme park that spanned the centuries or even the Six Flags group …. how many flags over Westminster might they be able to tout?

    As to the bars and other amenities, that famous pentagonal building in Arlington, VA overlooking the Potomac that is a small city includes in its lower bowels shops, places to eat (no bars of course) and direct access to the metro (tube). Of course I have not set foot in the place since 1994 and know not the current state but I bet it is still a beehive of commerce that keeps the thousands of folks working there supplied.

    Love reading your posts…so much errr research goes into them and I learn so much without resorting to an actual newspaper.
    Cheers, O.


    • Y’know, before the referendum, I used to hear people complaining about the massive amount of money the EU wasted moving from Brussels to–is it Strasbourg? But no one seemed to think it was scandalous that the UK parliament spends money on all its oddities, including subsidized champagne.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ellen what a brilliant post. I write a monthly political and satirical column so please may I grab bits to put in there? I know about the bars and there is also a full-time creche but lots I didn’t know. Still giggling.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Quite a few years ago it used to be the case that the House of Commons had a rifle range but no creche. I have no idea if that’s still the state of play. It gives you a good sense of the place’s priorities.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I don’t know about you guys, but we have to endure maintenance projects in public buildings, parks and on our roads all the time. Why can’t these folks suck it up and let a little hammer-drilling go on while there in session? Might put them more in touch with reality.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow. Bravo for your most informative post.
    And I thought we had infrastructure problems here in the USA.
    God save the Queen and her house – she has many admirers across the world who will now be worried about her.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wouldn’t worry about her–she’s only in the building briefly, for a ceremonial opening of parliament. I have to say, I’m not one of her admirers. Nothing personal, I just can’t see the point of royalty. But never mind–it’s not something we need to argue about.

      I do see what you mean about infrastructure here and in the U.S. Your comment called to mind the time when a chunk of New York’s West Side Highway fell down, mostly, as I understand it, for lack of maintenance. A governement saves a small amount of money by ignoring it and winds up having to spend a huge chunk of money clearing up the mess it allowed to happen. Don’t get me started. The mess in the houses of parliament seems to have been building for a good long time, but in recent years the governments here have been slashing funding for everying (in the name of not wasting money) and the infrastructure truly is creaking. It has me seriously worried.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I won’t argue with you about the royal family because I totally agree with you, and my tax dollars aren’t going to support them. Clearly we never got the point of all that on this side of the pond but, like most Americans, I am fascinated by them from afar.
        Don’t get me started on infrastructure, either. We would prefer to make wars in the Middle East or stoke nuclear fires in Iran and North Korea than allocate funds for refurbishing our crumbling roads, bridges, outdated railway systems or, more importantly confronting hunger and income inequality in our country. See…don’t get me started, either.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: British news you almost missed | Notes from the U.K.

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