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