The next mayor of London?

Sian is the Green Party's candidate to be London's mayor

Voting and democracy are what make the world of politics go around, and there has been a lot of it about this week. Like the proverbial bus, you can wait for ages for a vote that will take you in the right direction, and then three come along at once.

First up, MPs were voting on proposals for reformed House of Lords on Wednesday. We’ve had quite a wait for this one, given that most people agree the system of heriditary and appointed law-makers went out of date on about July 14th 1789. New Labour entered government with a commitment to action. However, they have been dallying over the final steps for nearly a decade.

Last time MPs tried to agree on the shape of reform, they threw out seven different options and didn’t support any. This time, in the wake of the cash for honours scandal, MPs finally backed two radical options for change: an 80% elected Lords with a majority of 38, and then a 100% elected Lords with an even bigger majority of 113.

I have to admit I was hugely pleased and relieved at the result – particularly at the popularity of the 100% elected option. Finally we might see a change to our constitution that means that, for the first time ever, Britain will be able to say it’s a grown-up democracy.

It’s obvious for a Green to say this, but it’s important now that we make sure the new house is elected with a fair voting system, and that a new Lords brings a greater diversity of voices into parliament. With a fair system of proportional representation, we’ll see a serious Green presence in parliament at last, ideally placed to put real teeth into green legislation.

The vote also slightly restores my faith in back-benchers, who I usually look upon as a shower of careerists and timeservers. The vote for 100% was no doubt influenced by the stench of sleaze attached to appointments by party leaders and must have been a shock for Blair and co. This wasn’t as far as they wanted to go at all. Blair voted for a 50% elected house and then cleared off, Brown voted for 80% but abstained on 100%, and Jack Straw, leading the process, voted for 50, 60 and 80% but not 100%.

Any reform won’t be easy for the Labour top brass to swallow – having held absolute power with a minority of votes for a decade. But, especially if elected under PR, a renewed Lords will also have renewed vigour and renewed legitimacy. With a real mandate, even with restricted powers, the new Lords will be more inclined to oppose the government and could pose a real challenge to the government’s hegemony.

The next vote of interest was when results started coming in from Northern Ireland on Thursday and Friday. After a doorstep campaign focused mainly on issues like water rates, sufficient numbers of people cast their votes beyond religious lines for us to see the first Green elected to the Assembly, in North Down. Congratulations go to our candidate Brian Wilson – his election is a definite sign of a shift away from the old politics in Northern Ireland, which depend so much on history, to ideas more concerned with the future. The Green Party can also boast it is now the only one represented in London, Edinburgh, Dublin and Belfast.

The third election this week was slightly less earth-shattering, but very significant for me. Votes were counted on Saturday for the Green Party’s selection of our candidate for Mayor of London. From a shortlist of five, including our brilliant drugs spokesperson and tireless activist, Shane Collins, I managed to secure the nomination with 45% of first preferences.

I’m thrilled to get the chance to take on Ken Livingstone next year. He started out as an independent, ‘man of the people’ character but is increasingly turning into an agent of New Labour’s business agenda.

His fondness for big, shiny projects is well known, frustrating me and the people of Camden over the Kings Cross development, where we desperately need family housing not more office blocks. And his support for similar projects, such as the Thames Gateway motorway bridge (which will do nothing to improve air quality for people in east London) is alienating people in other boroughs too.

With no other party’s candidate yet selected, I’m looking forward to being the only challenger for a while and working hard to highlight what we will do to make London a human-scale city again.

This weekend we also selected our candidates for the London Assembly list (the Assembly is made up of constituency members topped up with list candidates to make it all proportional to the votes cast). The list is where our Assembly Members tend to come from, although we do well in a lot of the constituencies too.

Our top three are, again, our excellent team from 2004 – Jenny Jones and Darren Johnson (current AMs) and former AM Noel Lynch. I’m next on the list, so it’s up to me now to make sure we get enough votes to win four seats this time round. No problem!

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.