Cleaning Democracy: How Window Cleaners Look After Parliament’s Windows… And How Much It Costs
The Palace of Westminster is also known as the “mother of all parliaments”. It is home to the House of Commons and Lords, and carries with it all the weight of tradition and prestige of rich and lengthy history, at home and abroad. (Though it isn’t as old as one would think, its modern form being constructed in 1840.)
Westminster Palace — also known as the Houses of Parliament — is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a Grade 1 listed building, and is an impressive 112, 475 square meters in size. That puts it at a colossal 1,324 times bigger than the average British household.
As the symbol of the UK’s wealth and, one could say, health, it is important that the Palace at least looks impressive to its subjects, as well as for tourists and visitors from overseas. (Although it is slowly subsiding into the Thames, and has a terrible infestation of mice, that is the subject for another time.)
So how is the Palace of Westminster cleaned? And what does this job entail for a window cleaner?
It costs the British taxpayer £4 million a year to foot the cleaning bill for Parliament, that’s according to a Freedom of Information request by Pure Freedom addressed to the Palace’s representatives earlier this year.
Because the specifics of the cleaning details are not disaggregated from the overall cost, nobody is quite sure how much the window cleaning bill actually is. Except, of course, the contractors — a cleaning service called Atalian Servest — who must know what they are charging the Government to keep the windows sparkling all year long (but won’t tell us).
But in our educated opinion, it must be a lot of money. The Palace has over 3,000 windows; including special stained glass windows like those you would find in a church — which makes sense because the Palace was built around the small medieval Church of Saint Margaret.
The external windows of the Palace (and, apparently, no one knows how many external windows there are, at least according to the respondents of the Freedom of Information request) are cleaned four times a year. That might seem reasonable, even perhaps, remarkably restrained. But the internal windows are cleaned every single day. Again, no one knows — or at least wants to bother to count and find out — how many windows the Palace has internally, but it must be a lot because the Palace employs a permanent team of four window cleaners. All four of them are on-site, every single day of the year.
Despite having a window cleaning team working non-stop, every day of the year, like the external windows, the special stained glass windows are only cleaned temporarily.
In fact, the windows are not cleaned regularly, but on an ad hoc basis. These stained glass windows — ancient monuments as they are — also need special care, and so require various unorthodox window cleaning methods, such as ammonia-free solutions, extra soft clothes, and pH-neutral soap. It probably takes an entire day to clean one of them.
The window cleaners also have to use extremely long telescopic poles — in some cases over 100-feet long — to clean the upper echelons of the Palace, into places where ordinary proletarians are not allowed to peer through.
Some reflections and conclusions
The Government is quite ambiguous about the details and the costs of cleaning each of the individual parts of the Palace of Westminster. We were unable to obtain the individual costs of the Houses of Lords or Commons or even a price of just the Palace alone — the total £4 million cost includes the parade grounds and the gardens of Westminster, too.
The Government was certainly ambiguous in that it couldn’t reveal how many windows the Palace had — especially the internal number — and why they needed to be cleaned so thoroughly and so regularly.
What we do know is that the window cleaners of Atalian Servest have requirements that aren’t typical of regular window cleaners, such as cleaning stained-glass windows and using unusually long telescopic poles — a fact which shouldn’t really surprise anyone. And that the job, given the permanence of the team and their requirement on-site, is an unending one. Even calculating for basic wages for window cleaners, the figure total for an always-present team of four must run into the hundreds of thousands every year.
This article was written by Neil Wright, a copywriter and data researcher for Pure Freedom. Pure Freedom manufactures pure water window-cleaning systems for window cleaners all over the UK.