The Palace of Westminster needs to leave Westminster. In this archive article (November 2019), Ellie argued the political and economic benefits of moving Parliament further up the country. Does coronavirus negate, or validate her call for this significant political change?
Parliament is falling apart literally and figuratively. It is time to throw in the towel at Westminster and relocate our legislature to the North of England. Westminster is on its death bed and the North desperately needs to take up a greater role in the political process.
The need to move parliament is urgent. No exaggeration is necessary: the building is structurally deteriorating. Parliamentary employees, from MPs to advisors, to cleaners risk their lives daily by turning up to work. The Palace of Westminster is an 1840 Grade 1 listed building which has never undergone extensive renovation.
Whilst of course the legislature certainly is resilient (or resistant to change), the Palace of Westminster, containing “extremely antiquated” heating, ventilation, water, drainage and electrical systems is both a physics teacher’s worst nightmare and a Victorian death trap. Plumbing fails, pipes are corroded, air-ducts are lined with asbestos. The cabling system is in chaos: there are over 240 miles of it inside. Electricians have only installed new wires and never removed old or broken wires. One room has over 3500 cables. As no one knows what these cables are for, they cannot be removed. What goes in certainly does not come out.
The cable crisis significantly increases the risk of a dangerous electrical fire, made more likely as crumbling stonework become increasingly frequent. Not long ago, an electrical fire caused by a broken light set the roof ablaze. You might remember when the press gallery was soaked after a burst water pipe sent water flooding through the ceiling in April 2019. It is farcical. To top it all off, the palace is gradually sinking into the Thames.
The situation is untenable, which is why parliament voted in 2018 to undertake an at least £3.5bn redevelopment. In the meantime, they will relocate to a building in Whitehall. But the process has been delayed amid parliament’s Brexit-induced deadlock (and now the unexpected and devastating coronavirus).
With the desperate need to rebuild parliament, now is an appropriate time to make the Palace a visitors’ site and relocate to the North of England. The structural collapse of parliament is occurring at the same time as the country has developed a hunger for change of the scale this article proposes. The case for relocation to the North should be seriously considered.
Manchester is the favourite. Leeds, Liverpool and Birmingham (albeit Midland territory) are contenders. Whatever the city, the relocation of parliament will rebalance the nation, reduce regional inequalities and drive economic growth in the chronically underinvested North of England.
As one Times article put it, the capital is ‘simultaneously the political, financial, media and cultural centre’ of its nation. Is it hard to remember that this is not the normal state of affairs. In the USA, Italy, Germany and Australia, their centres are dispersed across a number of cities.
Yet London is seemingly the solo hub for everything and anything.
Is this a problem? Yes.
Paired with a highly centralised political system in England (with the exception of the devolved assemblies), it is far too easy for our political class, who spend over 70% of their time in the capital, to assume or expect that London reflects the rest of the nation. This is far from the case.
Transport in the North is poor compared with London. Productivity in certain cities has been compared to levels in East Germany during the Cold War. The North of England has received at least £59bn less funding on transport than London over the past decade. The recently published 2019 Parent Power school guide features just one school from the North East in its top 150 state secondary schools.
Moving our parliament to the North would tacitly raise the profile of Northern issues. MPs would campaign for an improvement in the trains they would use to commute to work. In 2016, Whitehall refused to give Leeds the funding necessary to build a new tram system – highly unlikely if MPs spent most of their time there. It would be in the interest of politicians to improve northern schools their children would attend. The same goes for hospital and GP care, arts funding and infrastructure spending.
The Brexit vote was a symptom of the great discrepancies within our country. One of the reasons the pollsters and even Cameron’s team’s predictions failed so miserably was because they spent far too long feeling safe and supported in London. Meanwhile, much of England was frustrated and desperate for change. The CEO of the cross-party think tank Demos remarked that London “is a byword for distance, disengagement and disconnection” from the underfunded and stagnating North of England. The UK is worryingly the EU’s most regionally divided nation.
A northern parliament could also address inequality throughout the country, what almost one in five Brits regard as the most important issue facing Britain today (Ipsos MORI poll 2019). This is not to suggest that Parliament’s relocation would provide a miracle fix to all of the UK’s issues but the benefits could be promising and long lasting. Wealth, infrastructure, political disparity would reduce by moving parliament to the North because politicians, civil servants, quangos, media operations and more would follow.
The UK needs a new city of status. We have too many medium sized, middle of the road cities in the North. Relocating parliament to one of these cities would certainly redefine it and drive it into the next decade. Not forgetting the Royals, constitutional power would be dispersed across the UK, perhaps negating the need for English devolution.
Moving Parliament to the North would, as The New Statesman once put it, ‘break the 40-year habit of running the entire British economy for the benefit of the City of London’. If banks remain in London, their influence would reduce. If they move, then the North can welcome their economic benefits. The city will allow London to recover economically from a political divorce. The move might allow London’s overheating housing market to slow down. Creating a rival to London would reduce the desire for university graduates to rush to the capital. Overall, a more balance and equal country would ensure.
This proposal might at first seem radical. But seriously consider it. Political disillusionment and economic despair is rife in the North after years of consistent neglect. There is no desire for an English Parliament and a federal system. The EU referendum shows that the majority of England were willing to vote for the political equivalent to jumping off a cliff.
We can confidently predict the benefits of moving parliament to the North.
I say we hedge our bets.
By Ellie Pogrund