30 April 2000. Thanks to Anonymous.
Electronic Telegraph, Issue 1801, Sunday, 30 April 2000
By Rajeev Syal
A labyrinth of tunnels beneath the streets of Whitehall and Westminster is being turned into high-security offices for the Government.
But although several MPs have asked for full details of the work, the Government has refused to supply them on security grounds. Builders working on the offices have had to sign the Official Secrets Act. A former minister said: "We have all heard about the tunnels. I was once told that John Major was taken into one of them when the IRA attacked Downing Street with mortars, but I don't know if that is true or not."
The multi-million pound renovation will transform old disused rooms whose existence is well known in Whitehall, although exact details about them are shrouded in secrecy, even from civil servants and ministers. One tunnel is said to run from the Cabinet Office basement, which connects to 10 Downing Street, to the Ministry of Defence. A renovation of the Cabinet Office basement to create overspill offices to cope with Tony Blair's expansion of No 10 is known to be under way.
Work is also in progress on a mile-long tunnel under Whitehall, which is about 40 feet underground. It is expected to take nine months to complete, according to an official close to the project. New tiling and fire doors are being installed along the walls of the tunnel, which is 7ft 6in wide and snakes below the heart of London.
Small offices open on to the tunnel every 200 yards in which workmen are installing computers and video surveillance cameras.Workmen enter the tunnel through a British Telecom telephone exchange in Whitehall and climb down three flights of stairs. Maps and plans cannot be removed from the site and each worker must hand in their copy of the plans at the end of each day.
Staff have been warned that if they use the designated fire exits without a genuine emergency they could be sacked. After the Whitehall tunnel is completed it is hoped that it will be connected to others, including a warren of passages built under Parliament in the 17th century.
The Whitehall tunnel system was constructed by William Halcrow, a civil engineer, in the Thirties. He was also responsible for boring the Victoria and Jubilee tube tunnels. His Post Office tunnel under Broad Sanctuary and Great Smith Street was designed to carry cables between government departments and built to be strong enough to withstand the pounding of air raids.
By the Fifties, military specialists agreed that the tunnels were no longer an adequate defence system because of the threat of nuclear weapons and they were largely abandoned. Many of the underground passages in central London connect with another Post Office tunnel built in 1954 which runs as far as Paddington to the west and Moorgate in the east.
Central London is so riddled with tunnels that some structural engineers have expressed concern about the stability of some of Britain's most important buildings. Some have said that continued tunnelling may eventually lead to the Houses of Parliament sinking into the Thames.
Phil Reed, the director of the Cabinet War Rooms in Whitehall, which houses the bunker from which Churchill directed the war effort, said: "These tunnels are historical sites and have had a real role in maintaining the safety of Britain's leaders and their staff. They provide a physical connection between the most important seats in government."
Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2000.