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.

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.