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.