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.

 
 
 
 

Here are eight thoughts on TfL’s proposed cuts to London’s bus network

A number 12 bus crosses Westminster Bridge. Image: Getty.

In 2016, the urbanism blog City Observatory had a modest proposal for how American cities could sort out their transport systems: “Londonize”.

Its theory, the name of which referenced another popular urbanism blog, Copenhagenize, was that the key plank of Transport for London’s success was something that even transport nerds did not consider very sexy: its buses.

Though the Tube might get more glamorous press, London’s bus service really is impressively massive: It carries roughly 2.3bn passengers per year—much more than the Tube (1.3bn), close to the New York City subway (2.8bn), and nearly half as much as every bus service in America combined (5.1bn), while serving a population roughly 1/35 as large.

How has TfL done this? By making its bus network high frequency, reliable, relatively easy to understand and comprehensive. We rarely talk about this, because the tube map is far more fun – but the reason it’s so difficult to fall off the transport network in Greater London is because you’re never that far from a bus.

Given all that, we should probably talk about TfL’s plans to rethink – and in most cases, cut – as many as 36 different central London bus services over the next few months.

I’m not going to rehash details of the changes on which TfL is consulting from next month: there are just too many of them, and anyway it’s someone else’s scoop. The story was originally broken by Darryl Chamberlain over on 853 London; there’s also some fascinating analysis on Diamond Geezer’s blog. You should read both of those stories, though preferably not before you’ve finished reading this one.

Before offering my own analysis of the proposed changes, though, I should offer a few examples. More than a dozen routes are facing a trim: the 59 from King’s Cross back to Euston, the 113 from Oxford Circle to Marble Arch, the 171 from Holborn all the way down to Elephant & Castle and so on. A couple – the 10, the 48, the C2, and at most times the special routemaster version of the 15 – are being withdrawn altogether.

On, and one new route is planned – the 311, from Fulham Broadway to Oxford Circus. This will help plug some of the cuts to the 11, 19 and 22.

So, what does all this mean? Some thoughts:

1) This might not quite be as awful as it initially sounds

TfL says that demand for buses has fallen by around 10 per cent in London in recent years. It predicts it’ll fall further when Crossrail opens, as passengers switch to the new line, or to the tube routes relieved by the new line. So: the idea of taking some unwanted capacity out of the system is not, in itself, terrible.

Striping out unnecessary buses should also improve air quality in some of London’s worst pollution hot spots, and improve traffic flow, hopefully speeding up journeys on those buses that remain. 

A map from the presentation in which TfL explained its plans, showing the reduction in bus numbers on key arteries. Hilariously, notes Darryl Chamberlain, “It no longer produces its own maps, so has had to use one prepared by a bus enthusiast”.

The plans might even free up buses and staff to increase frequencies in outer London where demand hasn’t fallen – though these plans won’t be unveiled until next year and, for reasons I’ll come to below, I’ll believe it when we see it.

2) For many bus users, a lot of these changes will pass almost unnoticed

By my count, I use nine of the affected routes with any regularity – but only three of the changes are things that I’m likely to be at all inconvenienced by. Most of the changes either affect a part of the route I don’t take, or one where there are easy, and pain free alternatives.

This is anecdotal, obviously – perhaps I’m just lucky. But my suspicion is that a lot of these changes will go unnoticed by most passengers. It’s only the sheer number of them happening at once that makes this look like a big deal.

3) The Hopper fare makes this easier...

Once upon a time, if you had to switch buses, you had to pay a second fare. This isn’t true of journeys on the tube or railways – and since bus passengers have, on average, less money than tube passengers, it amounted to a pretty unfair tax on poorer Londoners.

But in January, in what is probably his most notable policy achievement of his two years in office so far, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan changed the rules. Now you can take as many buses as you want within an hour, for a single fare: that means you can switch buses without paying a penalty.

That will have made it easier for TfL to cut routes back: replacing a direct bus journey with one that requires a change no longer means imposing a financial penalty on passengers.


4) ...but not that easy

That’s about where the good news stops, though – because there are reasons other than cost why people prefer direct bus routes. Needing to change buses will be difficult for anyone with any form of mobility impairment, for example. Even for those of us lucky enough not to fall into that category, it’ll be annoying: it’s just easier to stay in one seat for 40 minutes than to get turfed off and have to fight for a new one halfway through.

More than that, from the passengers’ point of view, excess capacity feels quite good a lot of the time: it means your bus may well be nice and empty. Reducing the number of buses along those key corridors will also make those that remain more crowded.

5) The motive is almost certainly financial

Another of Sadiq Khan’s big policy promises was to freeze fares. He made this promise at a time when central government is massively reducing the financial support it gives TfL (the work, Chamberlain notes, of Evening Standard editor George Osborne, back when he was chancellor). And the Hopper fare, while a great idea in many ways, means a further reduction in income.

So: TfL is scrambling for cash: this is why I remain cynical about those new outer London bus routes. I would be amazed if money wasn’t a motivation here, not least because...

6) TfL thinks no one will notice

Any attempt to reduce tube frequencies, let alone close a station, would result in uproar. Hashtag campaigners! Angry people pointing at things in local newspapers! Damning reports on the front of the Evening Standard from the bloke who made it happen!

Buses, though? Their routes change, slightly, all the time. And do you really notice whether your local route comes every 10 minutes or every 12? That’s not to mention the fact that bus passengers, as previously noted, tend to be poorer – and so, less vocal – than tube passengers.

So cuts, and the savings they bring, are much easier to sneak through. TfL probably would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling bloggers.

Although...

7) Scrapping the C2 might be a mistake

The C2 runs from Parliament Hill, through Kentish Town and Camden to Oxford Circus. In other words, it links north London, where a lot of journalists live, to the offices of the BBC and Buzzfeed.

As occasional New Statesman writer James Ball notes, this is probably not the easiest route to quietly shelve.

8) None of this is set in stone

The consultation doesn’t even begin until next month and then will run for six weeks – so all these plans may yet be forgotten. We shall see.

Anyway – here’s Darryl Chamberlain’s original scoop, and here’s some detailed analysis on Diamond Geezer. Please support your local bloggers by reading them.

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

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