Big Ben: £29m plans to conserve Elizabeth Tower announced

£29m conservation plan for Elizabeth Tower announced by UK parliament

UK Parliament has announced a three-year programme of essential works to conserve the Elizabeth Tower, the Great Clock and the Great Bell, also known as Big Ben, which is due to begin in early 2017.

These works will:

  • Repair problems identified with the Elizabeth Tower and the Great Clock, which cannot be rectified whilst the clock is in action
  • Conserve significant elements of the Tower, as designed by architects Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin
  • Repair and redecorate the interior, renew the building services and carry out work to improve health and safety and fire prevention
  • Increase energy efficiency to reduce the Tower’s environmental impact

To ensure that the UK’s most famous clock continues to keep time, our experts closely monitor the mechanism and carry out adjustments on a daily basis. The Elizabeth Tower, which is visited by around 12,000 people each year, is carefully conserved by Parliament’s heritage team. However, as extensive conservation works were last carried out more than 30 years ago (1983-1985), significant work and an investment of £29m is now required to ensure it remains in good condition and is safeguarded for future generations.

As the Tower is 96 metres tall, scaffolding is needed to enable workers to reach high levels safely. Scaffolding will be dismantled as the work is completed from the top, and at least one clock face will be on show at all times. As a Grade I listed building within a UNESCO World Heritage site, the 160-year-old Tower is subject to listed building consent. This programme of works has been carefully planned in consultation with Historic England.

The Elizabeth Tower

Completed in 1856, the Elizabeth Tower was designed by architects Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin, and took 13 years to build. Today, the Elizabeth Tower suffers from problems common in buildings of a similar age. While the tower itself is structurally sound and does not require works to improve its stability, other works are now a matter of urgency. Cracks have developed in the masonry, the cast iron work on the roof and belfry is corroding, and leaks have caused damage internally. There is evidence of serious condensation, leading to problems with damp, cracked plasterwork and rust. Corrosion to the bell frame has caused one of the feet supporting the quarter bells and Big Ben to split. Stonework damage is present at high levels and the famous Ayrton Light, which tops the Tower and shines to indicate that Parliament is sitting, needs to be fully dismantled and restored.

All planned refurbishment works are designed to be appropriate to the age and significance of the building. One of the aims of the project is to conserve significant elements of the Tower, as designed by architects Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin. The existing black and gold colouring around the clock dials was applied in the 1980s. Parliament’s team of conservation architects is currently analysing the original paint used to decorate the surrounding areas to each clock dial. Once a clear picture of the early colour schemes has been built up, the stonework will be repainted to reflect, as far as possible, Pugin’s original design.

The Great Clock

Designed by Edmund Beckett Denison, the Great Clock was first installed in the Clock Tower in April 1859. Having served for over 157 years of nearly unbroken service, parts of the Great Clock have become worn and require urgent investigation and repair – neither of which can be carried out whilst the clock is in operation. Despite attention from specialist clock makers on a daily basis, it is estimated that if problems are not addressed soon, there is a high risk that the clock will fail. There are concerns about the pendulum’s accuracy, and the suspension spring, which holds the pendulum in place, needs to be replaced. In order to diagnose and fix these issues, it will be necessary to stop the clock and remove the pendulum.

The bearings in the joints holding the hands onto the dials need attention to ensure that they continue to turn smoothly. The clock hands were last removed in 1984, and will now benefit from removal and refurbishment again. Many of the 312 pieces of pot opal glass used to make up each clock face need to be renewed as a number have cracked due to years of exposure. In addition, the cast iron frameworks which hold the glass in place have corroded and need extensive repairs.

Modernisation

When the Tower was built over 157 years ago, workplace health and safety and fire prevention systems were not included. In addition to the conservation work, work will be carried out to improve and upgrade health and safety and fire prevention for staff and visitors within the Tower, in line with Regulatory Reform Order 2005.

Access to the Tower is via 334 stone steps and evacuation in the event of an accident is carried out using a complex abseiling rig. To improve safety and tohelp reduce the time it takes to evacuate an injured person from the Tower in the event of an emergency, a lift will be installed in one of the existing ventilation shafts. The lift will provide improved access (though not full access due to constraints of the space) for some disabled people who are currently unable to use the stairs, and will improve access to the clock for maintenance purposes. The absence of plumbing and water supplies means that there are no toilet facilities or running water in the Tower. These issues will be addressed through the installation of a basic washroom facility.

To improve the Tower’s energy efficiency, mechanical and electrical services will be renewed and updated and the lights illuminating the clock dials and the belfry will be replaced with low energy LEDs.

Rt Hon Tom Brake MP, Spokesperson for the House of Commons Commission, said: “The Elizabeth Tower is a symbol of the UK’s democratic heritage and forms part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We have a duty to ensure that it is safeguarded for future generations to appreciate, just as we owe it to our predecessors to restore their masterpiece to its former glory. While these works are much needed in the short-term, they will also ensure the long-term future and sustainability of Big Ben.”

Steve Jaggs, Keeper of the Clock, said: “This historic clock is loved by so many people. It is both an honour and a great responsibility to keep it in good working order for public enjoyment. Every day our team of highly skilled clock mechanics cares for this Victorian masterpiece but, in order to keep the Clock ticking, we must now take the time to thoroughly inspect and restore it. These essential works balance value for money with Parliament’s custodial responsibility to the building as well as to those visiting and working in the Elizabeth Tower. This project will enable us to give one of Britain's most famous landmarks the TLC it so desperately needs and deserves.”

Robert Bowles, MA CEng MIStructE Conservation Accredited Engineer, said: “This historic building, whilst structurally sound, requires urgent attention to ensure that it maintains its integrity for future generations. As with other World Heritage Sites, problems must be addressed early in order to prevent cumulative damage. Having seen the damage first hand, this programme of works is crucial and will give the Elizabeth Tower a new lease of life.”

Keith Scobie-Youngs FBHI ACR, Clock maker, the Cumbria Clock Company, said: “The Great Clock is one of the finest examples of Victorian clock making. It is a wonderful clock, with huge significance to the nation. Having been in operation for so many years, it is absolutely vital that time is taken to really investigate the mechanism and understand any potential problems which may have an impact on its accuracy.”

26 April 2016

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