Sometimes leaving home is difficult, but often it’s for the best. Parliamentary authorities are in the process of deciding how to renovate a Palace of Westminster that is badly in need of repair. Although the building is not due to slip into the Thames, which might be popular with the electorate, serious work needs to be done to keep it going and make it safe. Leaks are damaging the ceiling above Teresa May’s desk and the building is riddled with asbestos. It needs to be gutted. A number of options are currently being considered including closing the building completely for five years to let the repairs take place. Parliamentarians might be moved to a new location. This could be in London but it does offer the opportunity try something different – move parliament to a new city.
Earlier this year Lord Adonis made the serious suggestion, and he always had to make clear that it was serious, that the House of Lords should move to the Salford Quays in Manchester if reform of the upper house is agreed upon. His argument was quite clear. Power in the UK is concentrated to an unhealthy degree in London and the south east of England. London is New York, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles rolled into one and the rest of the country suffers in its shadow. If half the legislature moved north this imbalance would be addressed to some extent. There would be limited damage to the public finances because the Lords could sell the very expensive property portfolio it has accumulated.
The proposed renovations offer a unique opportunity for both Houses of Parliament to move to a different city in the UK even if it is just for a trial period. After all, as Baroness Wheatcroft has pointed out, it would be useful to keep both Houses together wherever they may end up. Where should our esteemed politicians go? The cities with the most obvious appeal are Manchester and Birmingham. Indeed, the geographic centre of the UK is just north of Manchester. Andrew Grossett has argued in favour of Middlesbrough being the best place to relocate both Houses. While his arguments are mostly based on what relocation could do for investment in the north east he does point out that it would be far cheaper to locate government and civil service jobs in the north east than it is in central London. If businesses find it reasonable to locate in low cost business parks with good transport links, why not our politicians?
Relocation also has the potential to change the mindset of the political elite. The Palace of Westminster itself, a truly exceptional building, seems to have a strange impact on MPs. Famously, Tony Blair was ‘thunderstuck’ the first time he entered the Central Lobby and claims in his autobiography that this was the moment he felt being an MP was his ‘destiny’. The place is steeped in a history that is difficult to escape. Statues of the great and the good, mostly aristocratic and religious figures, litter the building. Aneurin Bevan felt that this could lead to some legislators becoming more ‘heavy-foot and cautious’ than they would otherwise. A new building would liberate parliamentarians from this weight of history.
MPs are, of course, wary of leaving Westminster. However, it should not blind them to the potential for good a move would have. If Prime Ministers feel it is important to hold cabinet meetings in different parts of the country why not consider moving parliament for a period of time? If it works well it could be made permanent. There is something for every party in the move. For the Tories it offers the opportunity to move bureaucrats to a cheaper location and to get rid of wasteful ceremonial public sector employees such as Black Rod (salary in 2008 £81,600). For Labour it offers the chance for job creation in areas that need it. The Lib Dems might get the semi-circular chamber they (probably) have always dreamt of. More importantly it could offer politicians a chance to get out of the media, finance and business bubble of London and to get a bit closer to the reality that most people in the country live every day.