A par­lia­ment that lis­tens has to get out of Lon­don Si­mon Jenk­ins

MPs know they must leave the crum­bling Palace of West­min­ster. They should re­con­nect with the re­gions

The Guardian - - JOURNAL -

‘Ye are a fac­tious crew and en­e­mies to all good gov­ern­ment … lock up the doors. In the name of God, go.” As MPs re­treat this week from a tem­pes­tu­ous ses­sion of par­lia­ment, Oliver Cromwell’s ex­pul­sion of their pre­de­ces­sors in 1653 is about to haunt them.

An ur­gent de­ci­sion will be re­quired this au­tumn on whether MPs and peers will va­cate the 1834 build­ing, de­scribed as now be­ing at risk of “a cat­a­strophic fire”, so it can be re­stored. Last year’s Palace of West­min­ster joint com­mit­tee pro­posed two op­tions: ei­ther camp on the site while work is un­der way or, quicker and bil­lions cheaper, leave and camp some­where else.

There is no ar­gu­ment. Par­lia­ment should leave, and make a virtue of do­ing so. The long-post­poned restora­tion is a clas­sic of pub­lic pro­cure­ment. A com­mit­tee of MPs and peers asked one of the coun­try’s most ex­pen­sive con­sul­tant, Deloitte, who asked one of the world’s most ex­pen­sive ar­chi­tects, HOK, for a guessti­mate. The an­swer was that restora­tion would take “from five to 11 years” and cost “from £3.5bn to £6bn”. I could have guessed that. The ranges are ab­surd and the sums stag­ger­ing.

Need­less to say, the Trea­sury com­mit­tee’s for­mer chair­man, An­drew Tyrie, com­plained that Deloitte had given “not enough ev­i­dence”, and re­fused to coun­te­nance the ex­pen­di­ture. He could have added that Buck­ing­ham Palace also re­port­edly faces “cat­a­strophic build­ing fail­ure” but needs a mere £370m. Is monar­chy 20 times cheaper than democ­racy? Theresa May is said to want the re­port buried, but with fires much in the news, ex­plicit warn­ings are not eas­ily dis­missed.

No one who has wan­dered the nether reaches of the palace can be in any doubt that Charles Barry and Au­gus­tus Pu­gin’s mas­ter­piece is in des­per­ately poor con­di­tion. Labour’s spokesman on the restora­tion and re­newal com­mit­tee, Chris Bryant, sees horse­men of the Apoc­a­lypse rid­ing down the Thames. With­out ur­gent ac­tion, he says, there will be “un­con­trol­lable” fires rag­ing, not to men­tion floods, burst sew­ers, rat in­va­sions, ter­ror­ism lapses, as­besto­sis, the loss of “an iconic sym­bol”, and a threat to “Bri­tish democ­racy and the rule of law, just when we are leav­ing the EU”. Cu­ri­ously he did not raise global warm­ing and Kim Jong-un.

One thing is clear. It has to be far cheaper for par­lia­ment to get out and let con­trac­tors do the job. Var­i­ous ad­ja­cent sites have been scouted, from the QE2 Cen­tre to other White­hall build­ings. A few wits have sug­gested MPs and peers might even move out of Lon­don for one par­lia­ment – es­cape the vil­lage. They are not cen­tral to the work­ing of gov­ern­ment. Why not get closer to the peo­ple?

Men­tion this to any par­lia­men­tar­ian and a tor­rent of prac­ti­cal ob­jec­tions en­sues. Yet I can think of noth­ing that would so im­prove par­lia­ment’s im­age and rec­tify the great­est hand­i­cap on the po­lit­i­cal econ­omy. The north-south im­bal­ance is now a run­ning theme of in­dus­trial and so­cial pol­icy. It is men­tioned by May and Philip Hammond. It is cited in one re­port af­ter an­other. Bri­tain is wildly over-cen­tralised.

Ger­many’s eight big­gest provin­cial ci­ties all have GDPs per head above the na­tional av­er­age. Of Eng­land’s eight, all ex­cept Bris­tol are well be­low the na­tional av­er­age, and have been for decades. Ci­ties such as Birm­ing­ham, Manch­ester and Sh­effield may have been dev­as­tated by dein­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, but then so were all Europe’s ci­ties.

The dif­fer­ence is that Bri­tain’s have failed to re­cover. None other than Not­ting­ham is even a net con­trib­u­tor to the na­tion’s wealth. Th­ese ci­ties ab­sorb more in pub­lic spend­ing than they gen­er­ate in tax.

Bri­tain is unique among mod­ern de­vel­oped economies in suck­ing the cre­ative juices from prov­inces to cap­i­tal. A punchy book by Manch­ester’s Mike Em­merich, Bri­tain’s Ci­ties, Bri­tain’s Fu­ture, points out in that, since 2010, growth has risen in Lon­don by 29%, but in provin­cial ci­ties by un­der half that. It is Lon­don that “car­ries” the na­tional econ­omy. Nor is this any sur­prise when you wan­der through board­edup north­ern Manch­ester or down­town Brad­ford, Blackburn or Grimsby. You have to pinch your­self to re­mem­ber you are in 21st-cen­tury Europe.

For decades the prov­inces have re­ceived pa­tro­n­is­ing ini­tia­tives such as Re­gional Growth Funds, Core Ci­ties, Na­tional Loan Guar­an­tees and City Deals. They merely in­crease dependency. The big money is still show­ered on Lon­don. The south-east gets more spend­ing on trans­port in­fra­struc­ture than the en­tire rest of the coun­try. The mother of all rail pro­jects, HS2, will pri­mar­ily ben­e­fit the cap­i­tal, as will the new Heathrow and Cross­rail 2. While aus­ter­ity is clos­ing lo­cal mu­se­ums across the land, those in Lon­don boom with new pro­jects.

The most se­ri­ous drain to Lon­don is the least no­tice­able – that of com­mer­cial, po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural ta­lent. At a re­cent Manch­ester sem­i­nar I heard the univer­sal com­plaint: “Why do all our bright­est kids want to get to Lon­don … and all you do is build a train to get them there faster?” Ge­orge Os­borne’s “north­ern pow­er­house” was wel­comed as an at­tempt to give the city cul­tural up­lift. But it was a comet across the provin­cial land­scape, and it was just Manch­ester.

Power in­stinc­tively re­sponds to lo­ca­tion. Min­is­ters and of­fi­cials hire Lon­don banks, con­sul­tants and think­tanks be­cause they know them, be­cause they em­ploy their chil­dren and friends. Lon­don gets a new rail­way be­cause min­is­ters ex­pe­ri­ence the over­crowd­ing. They sub­sidise its op­eras and mu­se­ums be­cause they use them. Out­side Lon­don is “here be dragons” ter­ri­tory.

The gulf, in other words, is one of cul­ture and per­cep­tion as much as raw eco­nom­ics. As lo­cal gov­ern­ment ex­pert Tony Travers puts it, “min­is­ters treat provin­cial Bri­tain as if it was still run by Derek Hat­ton. To them the north is a failed state.”

The House of Com­mons is about to be­come, per­haps briefly, im­por­tant. Its arith­metic is un­pre­dictable and its in­flu­ence on pol­icy, not just over Brexit, will be sig­nif­i­cant. Noth­ing could do MPs more good than to spend a solid five years out­side the cap­i­tal, oc­cu­py­ing the hin­ter­land of a na­tion they have ne­glected so long. The hard­ship need not be great, as most MPs are at least no­tion­ally based in the prov­inces. For peers and jour­nal­ists life might be tough – but it would be the more re­ward­ing.

Where to go? The an­swer has to be to closer to the cen­tre of na­tional grav­ity, in the Mid­lands or north. The most ob­vi­ous can­di­dates are Birm­ing­ham, Manch­ester, Leeds or Sh­effield. So let the ci­ties bid, as they do for Com­mon­wealth Games or city of cul­ture.

All have good trans­port links, lively uni­ver­si­ties, mildly bo­hemian quar­ters and so-called cre­ative hubs. All have fine civic build­ings into which par­lia­men­tary ses­sions could be squeezed. Manch­ester town hall out­does West­min­ster for grandeur.

To spend a sus­tained pe­riod of time view­ing Bri­tain from out­side the cap­i­tal would, I be­lieve, trans­form the po­lit­i­cal com­mu­nity. Of course MPs would howl blue mur­der. That is why they should go. Years later, they will all say the same thing: it was worth it.

Chris J Rat­cliffe/ AFP/Getty Im­ages

A de­ci­sion on the fu­ture of the palace has to be made this year

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