Gainsborough

Sir Edward Leigh: Why I am opposed to the silencing of Big Ben

In times of uncertainty, we are reassured by those things that are constants, by dependable old friends just being there. One such constant is the Elizabeth Tower at the Palace of Westminster and the reassuring, regular sounding of its bells to mark the passing of time.

The Palace of Westminster is one of Britain’s most iconic landmarks, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Elizabeth Tower that houses the clock and the 13.7 tonne Great Bell, known as Big Ben, is to undergo a snail-paced four-year £29 million programme of renovation and repair.

I have been active in opposing the planned scheme, which I believe is needlessly elaborate and unjustifiably expensive, seeking a more realistic scheme which would allow MPs to stay in the building.

I am proud to represent the people of the Gainsborough constituency in Parliament and from my office, if you are sat in the window seat, you can just glimpse the tower.

Scaffolding already covers much of it and repairs have started on the building to ensure it can be preserved for future generations and be made more energy efficient.

However, to protect the workers who will repair the mechanism inside the tower the bell has been disconnected from the clock while work is ongoing, on the basis that the bell’s hourly bongs, and the chimes which take place every 15 minutes, would damage workers’ hearing and risk startling them on the job.

As such, the bell’s striking mechanism has been locked in place, to prevent any regular bonging throughout the renovation process. The clocks will still tell the time with the help of an electric motor, which is being used while the main mechanism is being restored.

You don’t have to be a sentimentalist to question the extended silencing of the bells. But should it really take longer to repair the tower than it originally took to build it?

News channels from around the world were broadcasting the farewell chimes live; testament to the global affection for one of our greatest landmarks.

We can often forget the appeal of rock-solid historic institutions like Big Ben and our monarchy to parts of the globe which have not enjoyed anything like the same stability and continuity. However, it is hardly a great advert for us as a can-do, entrepreneurial nation about to be released from the shackles of the EU if it takes us four years to overhaul a clock.

Naturally enough some users of social media decided to condemn those mourning the silencing of Big Ben for not being more upset about the Grenfell Tower disaster. So what should be an issue about how best to renovate and repair an historic building becomes a political issue.

On the one hand, we have the Prime Minister, Theresa May urging a cracking of the whip and on the other, we have the Opposition Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, saying that it is no big deal and the welfare of the contractors should trump all else.

In the end we should be making informed choices about the best way to spend public money – your money – on restoring and repairing the historic building that houses our national parliament.

I started this column considering the importance of constants within our lives and with Big Ben silenced it is perhaps fitting to remember the words of the late U.S. Senator Eugene McCathy that ‘the only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is inefficiency’.