Thu 22 October 2020

David Hencke on a damning report by the National Audit Office revealing how poor oversight, weak governance and high staff turnover have ramped up costs.

Share this article

Parliament has mismanaged the ongoing project to refurbish the iconic Elizabeth Tower, which houses the famous Big Ben bell and clock face, the National Audit Office has revealed today.

Poor oversight, weak governance and high staff turnover contributed to a cost overrun of 176% — from an original £29 million in 2016 to £80 million today.

In February, parliamentary officials put the blame entirely on finding new damage to the tower when they inspected it more closely. But the National Audit Office (NAO) has now revealed that an internal audit report found that officials underestimated the risks in restoring the tower in the first place and initially did not properly monitor the work. They also underestimated the costs.

“The need for further site surveys, including exploratory works on the roof exterior, the clock faces, and the external masonry, had not initially been included in the business case, leading to an overly optimistic view of risks,” the report states. “The final business case included a clearer estimate of risk, but there continue to be on-site discoveries requiring design changes that increase costs.”

Governance weaknesses led to poor oversight because initially Parliament did not appoint a senior official responsible for the work which is standard good practice, according to the NAO.

Before April 2017, there was no project board providing support and overall control and direction, with project oversight the responsibility of the joint estates team. All of this occurred when there was a large turnover of staff and, at one stage, 40% of the jobs on the team overseeing the project were vacant.

In February, Parliament found it had to replace broken glass in the clock face, renew more than double the amount of masonry, remove asbestos in the belfry and found belatedly that a specialist clock expert was required. It still has to complete mechanical and electrical works and refurbish the Big Ben hammer and stonework, with some uncertainties over the building’s condition remaining. The project should be completed late next year.

The NAO has highlighted the problems in a report warning that proper planning must take place to supervise the huge refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster which will cost billions of pounds.

Parliament has withheld some £122 million from the planning budget for the restoration of the main buildings because of the COVID-19 pandemic and there are delays in getting planning permission to make alterations to Richmond House in Whitehall where Parliament will move in 2025.

The report has also revealed that delays and cost overruns are not new. The present Parliament buildings should have been completed in 1852.

Instead, the NAO states: “Construction of the Palace ran 18 years late, with building work finishing in 1870. It was three times over budget owing to the building requirements expanding, poor governance and confusion over who should act as the main client.”

Become a Patron of Byline TV

More stories filed under Fact