Bell chimes for last time before it is silenced for £29m renovation of Elizabeth Tower that has proved controversial
The bongs of Big Ben have sounded for the final time before they are silenced for a four-year period of restoration workon the Elizabeth Tower.
The tower is undergoing a £29m programme of renovation until 2021, but the prime minister and several MPs have raised concerns over the plan to silence the bell.
House of Commons authorities said workers would not be able to operate safely next to the ringing of the 13-tonne bell. But it will still sound for events such as New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Sunday.
The Commons commission said it will review the timescale after complaints were raised, including by Theresa May, who said it “cannot be right” for the bells not to chime regularly for four years.
A handful of MPs gathered by the members’ entrance to the Houses of Parliament on Monday to mark the occasion of the bell’s final chimes.
In New Palace Yard, 200 parliamentary staff watched the bell bong, with the jocular Labour MP Stephen Pound wiping a tear from his eye. “Bong-o gone-o, that’s so wrong-o,” Pound told reporters as he arrived in the courtyard. As the final bell rang, Pound called the sound “misery in the key of E”.
“This is a desperately sad moment and you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” he said. “I think it’s the passing of something that means a great deal to a great many people – certainly to my constituents. It’s an elegiac moment of sombre sadness as the bells cease.”
Pound said he doubted that the chimes would return on schedule in 2021. “They’re not going to be back in four years. Have you ever known any government project come in on time or on budget?” he said.
Pound was joined by the Labour MPs Jess Phillips and Rupa Huq, who both said they had been walking across the yard coincidentally while in parliament to deal with constituency business. The Conservative MPs Peter Bone and Matt Hancock also listened to the final chimes among the crowd.
Phillips, the MP for Birmingham Yardley, said she had returned to speak to the Home Office on behalf of a vulnerable constituent. “That’s what’s more important,” she said. “I don’t care about those bells, but one thing I do really care about is worker health and safety.”
Huq, who had finished giving a tour of the Houses of Parliament to a group of constituents, said politicians needed “a sense of perspective – it’s not a day of national mourning”.
“We’ve seen what happens when you scrimp on health and safety – Grenfell is the extreme example,” the Ealing Central and Acton MP said. “Sometimes we have to strip away at some of the layers of sentimentality and tradition just for the sake of it.”
Three Eurosceptic Conservative MPs – Bone, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Andrew Bridgen – have previously called for the bongs to ring at midnight after the UK leaves the EU on 29 March 2019.
Members of the public packed into Parliament Square and lined Westminster Bridge to hear the final bongs.
The Great Bell, the official name for Big Ben, traditionally rings every hour to the note of E, accompanied by four quarter bells that chime every 15 minutes.
This is not the first time the bells have fallen silent: they were stopped for maintenance in 2007, and between 1983 and 1985.
Many MPs have distanced themselves from colleagues demanding a rethink of the restoration programme. The Conservative MP Conor Burns said there had been “the most enormous amount of nonsense talked about this”.
“I look forward to getting back in September and back down to business, and when you see the footage of our colleagues who gathered at the foot of Big Ben, you will not see too many colleagues who have careers ahead of them,” he told the BBC’s Westminster Hour.
The clock is to be dismantled piece by piece, with each cog examined and restored, the glass repaired, and the hands removed and refurbished.
Though the clock’s mechanism will also be dismantled, at least one clock face will continue to operate via a temporary modern electric system, but scaffolding will cover three of the four clock faces by the end of October.
The keeper of the clock, Steve Jaggs, said the silencing of the bell was a “significant milestone in this crucial conservation project” that would safeguard the clock on a long-term basis.
The Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, a member of the Commons commission, said it was prepared to look again at whether the bells could be rung more regularly to mark special occasions.
“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 bells to be rung on other ad hoc occasions,” he said.
Health and safety advisers have defended the decision to silence the bongs. Hugh Robertson of the TUC said: “At nearly 120 decibels, it’s like putting your ear next to a police siren. Protecting workers’ hearing is far from ‘health and safety gone mad’. It’s just plain common sense.”