Mon, Mar 09, 2015 - Page 6 News List

Mice, smog, MPs: UK parliament faces urgent repairs

FALLING DOWN?The UNESCO World Heritage building faces an uncertain future as the scale and cost of repairs — as well as the hazard it poses as it stands — grow by the day


Behind the neo-Gothic splendor of the Palace of Westminster in London, England, pictured here on July 15, 2012, Britain’s Houses of Parliament building is crumbling and overrun with mice.

Photo: AFP

Behind the neo-Gothic splendor of the Palace of Westminster, Britain’s Houses of Parliament building is crumbling and overrun with mice, prompting its top official to warn that it might have to be “abandoned” without urgent renovations.

Leaking roofs mean members of parliament have to use wastepaper baskets to catch drips when it rains and the ornate stonework has been eroded by air pollution.

Asbestos is a constant hazard and even the famous clock tower snapped by tourists from around the world leans 46cm off the vertical.

Then there are the mice.

Rodents are frequently spotted scurrying around the members’ tea room and a mouse hotline was even set up so politicians could report sightings.

One lawmaker, Anne McIntosh — who has also seen mice in the House of Commons library late at night — wants parliament to adopt a cat from a nearby animal shelter to chase them away.

“For some reason, my idea of having a cat wasn’t accepted,” McIntosh said. “There are also reported to be rats — it’s so close to the river and they say you’re never more than six yards away from a rat in London.”

Also on the list of MPs’ complaints are often cramped working areas and faulty heating.

House of Commons Speaker John Bercow flagged up the scale of the problems in a speech on Tuesday last week, saying the final bill for repairs could be £3 billion (US$4.5 billion).

He warned that lawmakers could have to move out for good within 20 years unless major renovations take place in the next decade.

The Houses of Parliament, designed by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, was finished in 1870 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Although a fire in 1834 destroyed most of the old Palace of Westminster and parts of the Commons had to be rebuilt after World War II due to bomb damage, there are still some areas which date back to the 11th century.

Despite such an illustrious history, the building faces an uncertain future.

Parliamentary authorities have commissioned a group of experts to tell them what exactly needs to be done and how much it is set to cost.

It is thought work is unlikely to start before 2021 and could take from several years to up to a decade, depending on how it is conducted.

John Thurso, a lawmaker who sits on the House of Commons Commission which oversees maintenance of the Palace of Westminster, said the work had been put off for too long and was now at a critical point.

“There will come a moment when something major will happen — it could be the collapse of a bit of the building, it could be a fire — any range of serious, catastrophic events,” he said. “We have reached the point where, in pass-the-parcel terms, the music has stopped and it has to be dealt with.”

MPs are already talking about whether they should move out of the Palace of Westminster while the works take place or stay, even though this could significantly increase the bill.

Many are lobbying for parliament to move to their own constituencies for the duration of the works to address claims that British politics is too London-centric.

It is thought more likely that lawmakers would relocate to a nearby spot such as the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, an unglamorous 1980s venue a stone’s throw from parliament.

Whatever happens, the British taxpayer will have to foot the huge bill for renovations at a time when many are disillusioned with politicians after a string of scandals, including over MPs taking second jobs and submitting improper expense claims.

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