To rebalance the economy, Britain should move Parliament out of London

The Palace of Westminster. Image: Getty.

To denounce proposals for moving Parliament, as Tim Wyatt recently did in these pages, suggests that, as a nation we are content with our current political landscape. But Brexit alone shows that we are not. Our political landscape is characterised by increased levels of disillusionment, and the desire for a new kind of politics is symptomatic of a lack of connectivity at both a local and national level.

The geography of the EU referendum votes showed not only an unsurprising disjuncture between the North and South, but one also between urban centres and regional hinterlands. While government strategies such as John Prescott’s Northern Way and George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse have focused on the economic output of globally connected core cities, interstitial localities have remained neglected. Despite monthly meetings and conferences, many of the proposals under the umbrella of the Northern Powerhouse have yet to leave the sphere of the imagination to have any concrete impact. Moving Parliament and its associated departments could be the key spatial intervention required to champion the improvements outlined for the North.

The relocation of government departments to areas underserved by current transport infrastructure would likely result in the improvement of services which have faced years of neglect by government. If a civil servant was required to regularly travel from Huddersfield to Sheffield, one can’t imagine the Penistone Line journey would still take well over an hour on a rickety old bus shell disguised as a train.

Yes, Parliament and its associated departments may well be made up of a significant number of employees – but a hot-desking culture is rapidly being emplaced in Whitehall as civil servants are frequently in transit. Could these departments not move to locations which score poorly on indices of deprivation?

After all, the success of the London Schools Challenge in 2003 was ultimately put down partly to failing schools being on “the patch” of MPs and policy makers. Although some government departments already have arms spread across the UK, policy is designed in Whitehall by policy makers whose lives revolve around working and bringing up their families in the regions around London. Their experience is lightyears from the everyday lives of those north of Cambridge.


Yes, London may well be the hub of the UK rail network, but it’s also the financial, political and creative centre of the country. The so-called north-south divide is regularly framed through the lens of the north “lagging behind” – never as London growing at an unsustainable rate.

In the same way London had the economic diversity to soften the blow from deindustrialisation, it could continue to survive without government. The city established itself as a centre of trade long before the itinerant royal court decided to settle there.

The proximity of government to the financial centre has remained contentious ever since, and to deny the influence one has on the other through mere proximity is to remain complicit. In the early United States, during debates on where to site the new nation’s capital, one congressman argues that, ‘Modern policy has obliged people of European countries (I refer particularly to Great Britain,) to fix the seat of Government near the centre of trade… This is a situation in which we never wish to see this country placed.” There is a good reason that Washington does not compete with the financial supremacy of New York: it has no desire to.   

Finally, the argument that moving would require “crippling expense” is one located within a culture of short-termism, where the lack of instant return is grounds for refusal. The budget outlined by the Palace of Westminster Restoration & Renewal programme is currently estimated to reach £3.5bn, a figure nearly nine times that of the Scottish Parliament, a project clouded by its over-expense. Winston Churchill may well have famously declared, “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”. Yet as the MP for Norfolk South Western, Captain Somerset de Chair, replied, “But do they shape us so very well?”

There is a real need for increased democratic engagement across the whole of the nation – and by relocating and reinventing parliament, this can begin to be installed. No longer should the general public be referred to as “strangers” within a building where the elected elite are there to represent them. No longer should our town halls and civic centres – the embodiments of local democracy – remain as office spaces indistinguishable from those many of us work in.

Moving and reinventing the architectures of government would be an investment in the future of British democracy – and help to share some of London’s riches with the rest of the nation.

Tom Ardron is a graduate researcher in the Department of Architecture at the University of Cambridge.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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