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Sunday 22 January 2012

Parliament Not Falling Down

[Update at end of post]

Briefly discussed during the paper review on this morning’s edition of The Andy Marr Show (tm) was a story in the Mail On Sunday suggesting that there is some kind of crisis meeting tomorrow over subsidence affecting the Palace of Westminster. The suitably dramatic headline talks of the “Commons sinking into [the] Thames mud”, but parts of the piece do not ring true.

Subsidence, it is said, “is already causing Big Ben to lean alarmingly”. Really? The tower has indeed leaned since construction, to an angle of around 1 in 260. The construction nearby (it should be stressed that it does not pass under any of the Palace of Westminster site) of the Jubilee Line Extension contributed no more than an extra 10%, or 22mm over the 55 metre height of the tower.

So a lean of around 220mm at the clock dials – hardly of Pisa-style proportions, and rather short of the Mail figure of “18 inches” (450mm). And that lean is to the North West, so any talk of the tower collapsing onto the Commons, or into the Thames, is purest drivel. And this isn’t the only part of the Mail article that doesn’t sound right: there are also the boilers, said to be “about to blow”.

What does that have to do with subsidence, unless the structure of those boilers was weakened by it, or pipework fractured? In any case, maintenance work would have been carried out at the time. The Mail is just making this up, as it is with the assertion of “subsidence caused by decades of Tube trains rattling past the foundations”, because there haven’t been “Tube trains” for “decades”.

The Underground’s Sub Surface Lines (SSLs) pass nearby, but these are not tube lines: rather they are, as the name suggests, just below the surface, built in the nineteenth Century using a “cut and cover” method. The trains do not move at any great speed, and all stop at Westminster station. The only “Tube trains” arrived in 1999 with the Jubilee Line Extension.

Moreover, both lines pass close to the Palace Of Westminster but do not go “past the foundations”: Westminster station is under Portcullis House – that’s the far side of Bridge Street. The Mail does not mention the incessant road traffic, but hey ho, that’s agenda driven hackery for you. What the piece finally does mention, though, is that there is nothing to panic over.

No decisions are likely to be made for several years”, a Commons spokesman has told the Mail. So there isn’t any need to panic. No boilers are “about to blow”. Nothing is “sinking into [the] Thames mud”. Nobody is selling anything “to the Russians or Chinese”. And any meeting tomorrow will not be a “crisis” one. This is routinely bad journalism trying to make a story where there isn’t one.

No change there, then.

[UPDATE 23 January: John Burland, emeritus professor at Imperial College, has this morning been on the Radio 4 Today programme [Audioboo HERE] to explain that the lean of Big Ben and cracks in the Palace of Westminster have "been there for years" and are nothing to worry about.

The lean in the clock tower, he explains, is as I mentioned, and may have been there even before the cladding was applied during construction. Cracks in the other buildings are unexceptional in structures of that age.

All of which confirms that the Mail was inflating a story out of very little. Once again, no change there, then]

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