Think you’ve got a problem with your blocked drain? Spare a thought for those working in the Houses of Parliament, who are having to contend with overflowing toilets, blocked pipes and leaks on a massive scale. Things got so bad on one occasion that two workers became ill enough to be sent home by their MP employer after a burst pipe caused a build-up of sewage near their office.
Drainage and expensive renovations
An estimated £3 billion is required for a major renovation of the 160 year old parliament buildings, including the famous clock tower housing Big Ben. According to the Daily Mail there are major problems with just about everything building-related you can think of:
problems such as leaking pipes, overflowing toilets and heavier demands made on existing drainage and sewerage facilities.
major work is required to the outdated electrical system, such as re-wiring and upgrading generators.
issues such as subsidence require attention, and asbestos is widely used throughout the structure requiring professional handling. The old iron roofing is wearing out and leaking, paint and plaster work is crumbling and ceilings are decaying.
Wildlife and stuck lifts
As if that wasn’t enough, the Houses of Parliament are also inhabited by more than MPs in the form of all kinds of wildlife including mice, rats, insects of various types and even birds. Fire safety is a concern with detection systems being out of date with modern demands, and lift equipment is old and in some cases unreliable – an MP got stuck in one on his way to a vote on one occasion. The oldest lift dates back to 1893.
There hasn’t been any significant investment in the historic landmark buildings on the banks of the River Thames since the 1940s after wartime bomb damage, and officials readily accept that any work on the Grade 1 listed structure has been very much on a ‘make do and mend’ basis.
Managing a major renovation project
Another problem is that deterioration is happening faster than repairs and renovations can be carried out. In the case of the leaking pipe causing two parliamentary workers to be sent home ill, it took a fortnight for repairs to be completed even though it caused a health and safety risk.
A problem with a major renovation project such as that required for the Houses of Parliament isn’t just the huge cost, but the logistical issues such a large undertaking would entail. Decisions would have to be made on the timescale, whether to re-house parliament while work is in progress, and if so where. It’s likely a body similar to that set up to oversee the 2012 London Olympics will be formed to coordinate the project.
Drainage problems not new
The Houses of Parliament is no stranger to drainage and sewerage problems. In 1848 a severe drainage problem was detected inside the Parliament building when a main sewer passing underneath the structure was emptying into the river. That would cause a challenge to the best of drainage companies with all their modern equipment, so must have been a huge undertaking back then.
Renovations for future drainage needs
It’s clear that renovations are needed urgently. Quite apart from the major drainage and other problems, in their present state the Houses of Parliament constitute a major fire risk – and it was fire that caused the previous buildings to burn down in 1834.
From a drainage point of view, it’s clear that serious problems exist and need attention when pipes and toilets leak so frequently and, as described earlier, so catastrophically.
There is of course the bigger issue of making sure the historic buildings are up to the task of withstanding possible future flood problems. They are on London’s flood plain and with more and more of the London area being covered with hard surfaces as the area expands, and concerns over climate change, future flood risks increase.
Drainage work wouldn’t just be about attending to current shortcomings, but would be about future-proofing the famous old landmark buildings, too.
Fraser Ruthven is the Growth and Strategy Manager for London’s leading drainage company – London Drainage Facilities.