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For Britain's Crumbling Parliament, Renovation Will Be Costly And Take Years

Safety signs indicate an area with asbestos in the Parliament.
Courtesy of U.K. Parliament
Safety signs indicate an area with asbestos in the Parliament.

London Bridge isn't falling down, but Britain's Parliament building — which sits along the River Thames and includes Big Ben — needs a ton of work. U.K. lawmakers are now analyzing a massive rehab plan that will cost billions of dollars and could force legislators to work somewhere else for years.

The options run the gamut. Doing the minimum amount of work to the complex, with lawmakers remaining inside, would take 32 years and cost more than $7 billion, according to an independent assessment commissioned by Parliament. Moving legislators into temporary accommodations one house at a time would cut construction time to 11 years and slash the price tag to a minimum of $4.9 billion. Moving both the House of Lords and the House of Commons out of the complex at the same time would further reduce renovation time to six years, at a minimum cost of $4.4 billion.

"What we want to do today is nail down the numbers on the costs," said Meg Hillier, a member of Parliament with the Labour Party, during a hearing this week on the proposal, "because it's a huge task to manage."

The amount of work to fix the Palace of Westminster, as the complex is formally known, is staggering. The problem isn't the structure itself, most of which was built after the fire of 1834 and remains sound. It's the guts of the complex, systems which include more than 700 radiators, 4 miles of hot water pipes, 7 miles of steam pipes and about 50 miles of telephone cables.

Most of the infrastructure dates from after the end of World War II and is either a jumble or in decay. On a recent tour of the basement, engineer Andrew Piper pointed out potential hazards, including an area where gas lines run next to high-voltage lines.

Palace windows show signs of age and decay.
Adam Watrobski / Courtesy of U.K. Parliament
Courtesy of U.K. Parliament
Palace windows show signs of age and decay.

"No one's had the opportunity to replace all these services in one go and come up with something that's sensible," said Piper. "Since the 1950s, it's just been adaptation, adaptation."

The U.K. government has put off fixing all this because of the expense and disruption it will cause, most likely forcing lawmakers to work elsewhere in Westminster for years.

"Sometimes politicians — and I am one — are not very good at making swift decisions," said Chris Bryant, a member of Parliament from Wales with the Labour Party and a member of the committee that drafted the renovation proposal.

No one questions fixing the Parliament building, which ranks with the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal in terms of global recognition. But some members insist on scrutinizing the cost, given the whopping price tag.

Bryant said the project is expensive because of its size and difficulty. For instance, he says, the Palace of Westminster has more than 4,000 windows that need work and the complex is riddled with asbestos.

Some of the infrastructure looks ancient, including a giant, silver-colored tank that pumps sewage into London's sewer system. Embossed on the tank is the date it was made, 1888, back when Jack the Ripper was prowling Whitechapel.

At first, Piper didn't believe it, but then he checked the House of Commons library and found the tank was indeed well over a century old.

Parts of the ornate exterior also need a face-lift. The palace's Cloister Court is one of the few surviving sections of the complex dating to medieval times. Today, though, it's cordoned off for safety reasons, because some parts of the stone façade are crumbling and other parts look like they've been melted by acid rain.

No matter how much the rehabilitation of the Palace of Westminster ultimately costs, the project will take years to accomplish. For Piper, the engineer, it will be a labor of love.

"I came here for this building," he said. "Every day you see it on TV, where it's on the news, it's on an advert, you feel connected to it and you feel it should be saved."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
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