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.

 
 
 
 

In New Zealand, climate change is driving an eco-nationalist revival

The green and pleasant land of the South Island. Image: Getty.

“Ten years ago I would have called them settler f*****g land squatters,” Mike Smith, Maori-dom’s most tenacious activist, said last November as he reflected on the agriculture industry’s central role in driving climate change. “Now I have to try and get these people on board.”

Smith is infamous for taking a chainsaw to Auckland’s most prominent tree on a damp October night in 1994 in protest of the “Pākehā” – or white European –dominated government’s fiscal envelope restraining treaty settlements. Now he’s turned his hand to another cause close-to-home for the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous population: the environment.

“We’re super vulnerable, like we are to anything,” Smith says. “When it comes to climate change it’s like the poorest people in the world are going to be hit the hardest first, and that’s a lot of us.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appears, at least rhetorically, the most sympathetic leader to his cause in a decade. In her campaign launch speech late last year, she made the future government’s position clear: “Climate change is my generation’s nuclear free moment.”

This message should resonate with followers of her Labour party: the NZ left has long nurtured an environment-orientated “culture-of-protest”. So Ardern’s call to arms was bound to gain her loyal support among children of the 1960s and ‘70s, who led the march against nuclear ship visits, spurring on the government of the time to wriggle out from the US nuclear umbrella, and place a ban on foreign nuclear ship visits.

Now, it is to the tycoons of deep sea oil exploration they aim to close NZ’s ports.

In this, Smith is not short of support locally, with marches run by grassroots organisations and international animal welfare funds beginning to gain traction with every day New Zealanders. In this, Ardern’s prediction is correct: the Coal Action Network Aotearoa (CANA), is reminiscent of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), an earlier cluster of left-wing pacifists and nature lovers who drove the creation of the nuclear free zone.  

In December, 15,000 passionate protesters marched through the capital. And with the government’s recent ban of offshore oil exploration projects, Jeanette Fitzsimons, former Green party co-leader and the head of CANA, is optimistic about similar change to the energy and farming sectors.

The Labour-NZ First-Green party coalition seems focused on setting a new global precedent, weaning NZ away from a United States which has jettisoned the Paris Agreement. The move replicates another 20 years ago, when New Zealand’s anti-nuclear movement was central to an upsurge in New Zealand nationalism. Now, the same sense of going it alone on foreign policy is apparent both locally and in Parliament.

Dr. Gradon Diprose, a senior lecturer at Massey University, argues that this echoes an older expression of colonial nationalism, that saw “New Zealand as a land of natural abundance”. This: “eco-nationalism” is centered on “protecting certain visions of picturesque landscapes and unspoiled natural beauty”. The slogan “Clean, green New Zealand” is prevalent in popular culture and tourism marketing. The public seems to have latched onto it too, and ranked keeping NZ’s waterways “clean and green” top of a recent survey of of kiwis’ top concerns.

Three decades ago, it was the 10 July 1985 sinking of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior that thrust local activists’ fears into the public eye, resulting in an almost nation-wide expression of climate-protectionism.


The bombing, a French intelligence operation sparked by Greenpeace’s calls for an end to foreign nuclear testing in the Pacific, galvanised a great deal of change to New Zealand’s overseas defence policies. A lack of censure from New Zealand’s Western allies drove Wellington to distance itself from the United States, while the shock of seeing a friendly nation violate NZ’s sovereignty left many at home seething.

Thirty years on, the foreign policy split throughout the Anglosphere, regarding Russian-Western relations, globalism, and the old international rules-based order, is becoming wider. Climate change is just the tip of the iceberg.

Most Kiwis you talk to will shake their heads in disapproval at US president Donald Trump’s scandalous outing last year in Helsinki. But US defiance of internationally brokered climate resolutions is something they can see clearly reflected in rural communities across the country.

The country saw records broken at both ends of the extreme weather spectrum last year. As 2018 kicked off, Kiwis sweltered through the hottest summer on record, while in Golden Bay, a small inlet near the northern tip of the South Island, residents endured the largest flood in 150 years. So, when President Trump tweets “So much for Global Warming”, the majority of New Zealanders look back fondly on NZ’s 1985 decision to boycott the “ANZUS” treaty, putting New Zealand at odds with its war-time ally America on defence legislation.

Public calls to take the same track on environmental regulation have become louder in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. The former US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, received a frosty “unwelcome” while on a flyby to the capital in 2017, with the New York Times’ Washington correspondent, Gardiner Harris remarking: “I’ve never seen so many people flip the bird at an American motorcade as I saw today”. Protests against President Trump’s stance on climate change are beginning to gain greater traction further still, with the hundred-strong “march for science” setting the tone for the new government later that year.

New Zealand certainly isn’t afraid of radicalism, and its activists are persistent. It’s already banned single use plastics in supermarkets. Plenty more is to come, Smith says.

And yes, reform is going to inhibit sometimes vital industries: “It doesn’t matter which way you spin the dice on this, whatever’s being done is going to hurt. People who are looking for a painless way of mitigating climate change, [but] I don’t think there is one.”

But among Smith’s troupe of climate agitators, the feeling is that, without drastic change, “the land”, the heart of the Maori ethos, is going to be hurt far more.

Back in Auckland, NZ’s financial hub, an electric scooter craze is gripping the city. This, too, has gained the support of local environmentalists. In New Zealand, a national sense of pride is always coupled with a certain eccentricity. In a country this size, change always starts small.