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Rethink after British PM chimes in on Big Ben ding-dong

© AFP / by Robin MILLARD | 'Big Ben' is the name for the 19th century bell housed in the Elizabeth Tower next to the Houses of Parliament. The 13.7-tonne bell strikes every hour to the note of E. Four smaller bells also chime every 15 minutes

LONDON (AFP) - 

Britain's Parliament said Wednesday it would reconsider plans to silence Big Ben for four years after Prime Minister Theresa May chimed in to a growing MPs' revolt.

Westminster's Elizabeth Tower, one of Britain's most cherished tourist attractions, is due for conservation work and the clock's bells are set to stop ringing for four years.

It is feared that prolonged exposure to the 118-decibel bongs from the 13.7-tonne Big Ben bell, which chimes out the hour, could damage the hearing of builders working on the site.

May joined several members of parliament in criticising plans to shut down the chimes for so long.

But the lower House of Commons said that in light of concerns expressed by MPs, the Commons commission "will consider the length of time that the bells will fall silent".

"Of course, any discussion will focus on undertaking the work efficiently, protecting the health and safety of those involved, and seeking to ensure resumption of normal service as soon as is practicable."

Earlier Wednesday, May told reporters: "Of course we want to ensure people's safety at work but it can't be right for Big Ben to be silent for four years."

She hoped that the Commons commission would "look into this urgently so that we can ensure that we can continue to hear Big Ben through those four years".

- Cherished bongs -

Big Ben's bongs are familiar to many people around the world because of their use in BBC radio and television broadcasts.

The 96-metre (315-foot) high tower is the most photographed building in Britain. The renovation is estimated to cost £29 million ($37.7 million, 31.9 million euros).

Politicians have claimed that when they agreed to the work, they did not know the chimes would be silenced for four years.

Brexit Secretary David Davis said stopping the bells was "mad" as he urged the parliamentary estate's authorities to "just get on with it".

Lawmaker James Gray described the move as "entirely bonkers".

"Big Ben is terribly important to the mental wellbeing of the nation," he told The Daily Telegraph newspaper.

MP Nicholas Soames, a grandson of wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, said: "Tell those poor little darlings to put headphones on," according to reports.

Under current plans, the last bong before the refurbishment will be at 12 pm (1100 GMT) next Monday, although the bells would still ring important occasions such as Remembrance Sunday and New Year's Eve.

Some MPs have suggested the bells could ring outside of the conservation team's working hours.

However the Commons said starting and stopping them was a "complex and lengthy process" that took around half a day to do, so "would not be practical or a good use of public money".

"Big Ben's bongs are an integral part of parliamentary life and we will ensure that they can resume their role as the nation's timekeeper as soon as possible," it added.

by Robin MILLARD

© 2017 AFP