The Palace of ColdMinster

In my little series on the oddities of the Palace of Westminster, I am covering one of the more contentious complaints raised by both Members of Parliaments and the Lords: temperature, or more accurately, its abundance or the lack of it.

The Palace is (not surprisingly) a hard place to heat. It is a giant stone building with lots of open space. There’s also the issue of the 4,000 windows set in bronze, which over time have warped and now do not close – letting out heat. It probably doesn’t help that many of the MEP systems (Mechanical, Electrical & Public Health) are simply out of date. With some of the 11 kilometres of steam piping retained from the 1800’s original system.

Despite this, the Palace was highly innovative for it’s time. The Victorian stack system, which provided ventilation to both chambers from its construction in the mid 1800,’s until the 1940’s is now being widely considered as a model for low-energy sustainable ventilation in public buildings.

Even then, that has not stopped the highest politicians in the United Kingdom’s moaning about the temperature in the same tone you would see in a squabbly office over the thermostat between the one person sat by a radiator in their jumper, and the other whose desk is by the open window. The Daily Hansard is filled with debates (by debates I mean complaints) about the temperature of the two chambers. My favourite of which is this 1980’s debate in the Lords:

“Lord LEATHERLAND: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of the fact that on this side of the House it is very cold indeed? We are almost shivering.

Lord MOWBRAY and STOURTON: My Lords, in hot weather some people like to be in a cooled atmosphere.

The Earl of HALSBURY: My Lords, could those responsible adjust the system so as both to conserve fuel and stimulate employment in the textile trade by turning the temperature down in winter and perhaps up a little in summer?

Lord MOWBRAY and STOURTON: My Lords, the whole object of this six-to seven-year programme is to save fuel. Those noble Lords who are scientifically minded may like to know that eventually we shall save some 190,000 therms a year”.


“The House is too cold… or too hot”

Other notable mentions about the temperature of the House include:

The earliest complaint I could find is from 1878, not long after Westminster was completed, the House of Lords complained the air was too hot and stuffy, while in “another place” (the House of Commons) had “superior mechanical means” (i.e ice).

-1933, There was a debate held because Members didn’t like the smell of the fuel (Coalite) being used to heat the Palace.

-1942, Arthur Molson MP, Member of Parliament for High Peak, wanted to find out who controlled the temperature in the house. But it seems the thermostat of the House isn’t controlled by democratically elected members but rather the Sergeant at Arms.

-One debate in the House of Commons in 1948 was sparked after members found out that House of Commons staff who dealt with the heating had gone on strike. The speaker complained he could not have a bath, and advised cold members to that it is “not out of Order” to wear a greatcoat.

-1952, Mid debate, Miss Elaine Burton MP made a motion to turn down the temperature of the house. The rest of the house when asked shouted no.

-In another “debate” about the heating in the House, it was announced that overheating in the House often occurred when there is too many votes in a short period. “It’s difficult to avoid a substantial increase in temperature if several Divisions” are called in short succession.

-In the same debate. When asked if there could be more fans in the Palace to deal with the problem the response was the traditional “go ask yer dad” response:

Mr. Molson: I will see if it is possible to do anything more in the way of fitting additional fans.

Mr. Shinwell: Ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

-Jeremy Thorpe MP, yes THAT Jeremy Thorpe MP, angry that the Members Dining Room was too hot asked in 1961 what temperature the House of Commons was kept. The answer was “an average temperature of 67º F [20 Celsius]. and 55 per cent. humidity.”

-1993, Tony Marlow MP commented to the speaker:

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I hope that you will not think me a voyeur, because I am not, but last night I noticed that you were fanning yourself with the Order Paper when you were in the Chair, because obviously it was too hot in the Chamber.

There are plenty of other mentions or complaints about the temperature in either of the two houses. A full list would probably make this blog far too long. It is worth noting that sometime after the 1980’s questions about the temperature of the house moved into the responsibility the relevant select committee.

A different type of hot air

Luckily, the great people at Parliament have been on a massive drive to increase transparency through data. One such data source is provided here, which gives an hour on hour update on the Palace of Westminster’s energy costs. The house has long since stopped firing its steam heating system with coal, instead it uses natural gas. It costs roughly £10k to £18k a month to heat the Palace in winter, and a lot less at around £4k during hotter months. Compare that to a yearly average of £18k annually in 1957 [The equivalent of £412k in 2017], it seems keeping the Palace warm has gotten a bit cheaper over the years, thanks cheap North Sea gas!

And if you’re wondering, it seems the Palace does indeed have a time setting on its thermostat. While there is always a low level of gas usage, it seems they bump up the heating at 4am in the morning, slowly rising until 7am. It’s then kept steady at until 1pm where they start to turn it down for the night.

But there is also another side to the story. Big inefficient buildings are bad for the environment. From the 8th May until the 2nd June, the Westminster Estates carbon impact through aas was 175,922 Kg alone. Compared to 88,749Kg Portcullis House in the same period. So I’m sure energy efficiency will be considered when Parliament finally gets renovated in the next few years.

Nevertheless, it’s reassuring that, if anything, the House of Westminster is like any other working environment, except the complaints about the office temperature are public record. But just remember that if the Houses of Parliament took over 100 years to stop arguing over temperature, what hope do you have ?

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