Big Ben sounds its regular midday bongs for last time in four years

Emotions were running high for one of those calling for a rethink to stop Big Ben being silenced for the longest period in its 157-year history. Standing in the Palace Yard, Labour MP Stephen Pound wiped a tear from his eye at the final bongs

Ashley Cowburn,Samuel Osborne
Monday 21 August 2017 13:02
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Big Ben sounds its last bongs for four years

Hundreds of spectators gathered outside the Palace of Westminster as Big Ben sounded its regular midday bongs for the last time before falling silent for four years.

Silenced as part of essential restoration works on the Elizabeth Tower, the famous 13-tonne bell is expected to return to full use in 2021 but will still sound on important event, such as New Year’s Eve.

Marking the occasion, MPs and parliamentary workers clapped and cheered as the Great Bell chimed at noon before being halted to allow work to begin. Spectators also gathered in Parliament Square.

Last week, Parliament said it would review the plans to silence the chimes after Theresa May joined an MPs’ outcry against the move, adding that “it can’t be right” for the iconic Big Ben to be silent for four years.

But Downing Street indicated she would not be marking the last chimes at noon, saying only “she will be working in her constituency”.

Emotions were running high for one of those calling for a rethink to stop Big Ben being silenced for the longest period in its 157-year history. Standing in the Palace Yard, Labour MP Stephen Pound wiped a tear from his eye at the final bongs.

He said that it was a “desperately sad” moment and said the decisions showed a “real poverty of imagination”.

But some of his parliamentary colleagues did not share Mr Pound’s enthusiasm for the Great Bell. Labour MP Wes Streeting tweeted he would “be sat with a good book instead” with the hashtag “get a grip”.

On Sunday, the Conservative MP Conor Burns told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour: “I think when you see the footage tomorrow of our colleagues who gather at the foot of Big Ben you will not see too many colleagues who have careers ahead of them.”

The Commission, which is made up of MPs, officials, lay members, and chaired by Commons Speaker John Bercow, will now review the timescale for repairs.

Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, who answers his colleagues’ questions on the Commission’s behalf, said one concession could be allowing Big Ben to chime on more special occasions.

It comes after a trio of Eurosceptic Tory MPs called for Big Ben to bong Britain out of the European Union on Brexit day, expected on 29 March 2019.

Plans were already in place for the bell to chime on New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Day.

Mr Brake said: “The House of Commons Commission has agreed to look at the issue when we’re back, and what I take that to mean is look at whether there is perhaps more scope for the bell to be rung on other ad hoc occasions.”

He signalled it could be difficult to get Big Ben bonging sooner than 2021 as the clock that drives the bell is being dismantled, overhauled and tested, which will take at least two years.

“That is a major obstacle in the way of striking it much more frequently and for a long period of time,” he said.

The 13.7-tonne Great Bell was last stopped for maintenance in 2007 and before that was halted for two years in 1983 for refurbishment, but has been stopped on a number of other occasions since it first sounded in 1859.

Parliamentary officials have insisted workers’ hearing would be put at “serious risk” if the bell continued chiming, warning that those using the 100-metre-high scaffolding around the tower could also be startled by the 118-decibel bongs.

They have dismissed suggestions the chimes could be restored during the hours that work is not being carried out, as the process takes about half a day to complete.

The renovation includes the installation of a lift and repairs to the clock’s hands, mechanism and pendulum and was expected to cost £29m but MPs have raised concerns that the bill could soar to £60m.

“As we are currently in a procurement process we are unable to comment on projected budget estimates at this stage,” a Commons spokeswoman said. “We expect to make an announcement regarding the contract in the autumn.”

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