Head to Head: Moving Parliament North

In February 2018, MP’s voted to leave the Palace of Westminster while it undergoes renovation- begging the question, where should MPs go? As it stands, the Commons would move to Richmond House on Whitehall and the Lords would move to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre. However, this vote triggered calls for a move not simply out of Parliament, but rather- out of London.

Where do you stand?

In Favour- Campaign Agent Lyell Tweed

In early 2018 MPs voted in favour of leaving the decrepit Palace of Westminster at an estimated cost of upwards of £5.5 billion to the taxpayer. The outdated building is a massive health and safety risk to all in it, from the immanent risk of fire to the extensive asbestos. However, MPs have been quick to guarantee that they will move straight back to Britain’s symbol of political decay after the refurbishment, missing what many believe is a great opportunity to breath fresh life into British politics. 

It may be difficult for people to understand, but for many outside the bubble of the South East, London is a hub of elitism, the old establishment, and the worst of neoliberalism- a world many consider threatening. The centralised nature of the UK, with the vast majority of public spending pumped into London, festers a deeply divided nation. A division that has been growing more and more since what was viewed as the de-industrialisation of much of the working North by the Southern elite. This may be exemplified by the growth of anti-establishment parties, to the Brexit vote, a vote many considered to be an anti-London vote. Westminster itself, looking in a sorry state surrounded by scaffolding in many parts, is as good a representation as anything for this weakening of political and national unity in modern times. 

This opportunity to reposition parliament, be that temporarily or permanently, should therefore be taken seriously if we are to get people to trust in politics again. The move of parliament to the North, most probably Manchester due to its consideration as the UK’s ‘second capital’, could go a long way towards this. The North has, for decades, received patronising government initiatives, the latest in the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ policy, with the lion share of public spending still going towards London. More than half of the UK’s investment in transport is in London. The HS2 project is simply a way of getting people from the big cities outside of London to London quicker, with the government instead concentrating their money and resources on the inflated ‘Crossrail’ projects. The North is deprived of health care funding while GP practices in London are comparatively overfunded. There are also various educational discrepancies between the North and the South. This neglect of the North by the London based government, exemplifying the North-South divide, highlights the problems of division within the country. A problem that could surely be rectified by a move of parliament to these neglected regions. This would rejuvenate and rebalance the economy of the rest of the UK and London would easily recover, whereas, and more importantly, the North would be transformed. 

Britain is unique in its centralisation. The US has four cities bigger than its capital, with Australia and Canada each having five. Germany’s largest cities all have GDPs above the national average, whereas in the UK only Bristol is not below the national average. This highlights the dependence the UK has on London, and therefore the regional divides that beset the nation. Economists agree that one of the major reasons for Britain’s painfully low productivity is that it has too few big cities. Moving parliament out of London would surely show that the government is serious about growing the whole of the UK, not just London, and bringing practical as well as economic benefits with it. 

On a practical level there is no reason why this could not work. Cities in the North, namely Manchester, have good transport infrastructure, one of the best universities in Europe, and many civic buildings where the infrastructure of parliament could be moved to. Much of Britain’s media has already moved to Salford in ‘Media city’ and Manchester has as much historical pull as anywhere in the UK, being the heart of industrial revolution. 

To be more open minded and view politics from outside London would transform the political community. It may show once and for all that politicians seriously care about the people who vote for them. It may help to heal the divisions plaguing our country- a task which policies of devolution have failed to achieve. It would rebalance the economy that has been centred on the South East for far too long now and thus raise living standards for vast areas of the UK. In a time of political decay, and with the country more divided than ever on numerous issues, bold decisions are needed; the refurbishment of parliament is the perfect opportunity for this. Moving the parliament North for this period, if not permanently, will do wonders for national morale and unite the country in a way that it has never been united before. 

Against- Campaign Agent Samuel Rhydderch

Yes, we know that parliament is an old, fire-hazardous, spaghetti mess of electric wiring and eighteenth-century plumbing; and yes, we also know that mice feel at home in the House of Commons, along with the pockets of asbestos hidden in the walls. And of course, we all know that at some point parliamentarians and the full-time fire officials – who patrol the parliament buildings in search of inevitable electrical fires – will have to move out in order to make way for repairs estimated at more than £4bn. A move to the north however, is not the answer.

It was back in 2016 when the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster published a report stating that the Palace of Westminster faces ‘an impending crisis which we cannot responsibly ignore’ – recommending that both the Commons and the Lords are to vacate between 2022 and 2028. This unavoidable fact has led to calls to move Parliament to a northern hub such as Birmingham or Sheffield, with MP Ian Austin and Guardian editor John Harris backing the moves.

The idea, however, that you can simply wrap and parcel out parliament like some sort of raffle prize, is absurd. It neglects the fact that parliament is so much more than a handful of MPs in the House of Commons meeting every Wednesday at noon. Parliament is the legislative, political, cultural, and economic capital of the UK.

Parliament is, essentially, a small community made up of approximately 10,000 people- including MPs’ secretaries, canteen and restaurant staff, plumbers, IT staff, researchers etc. These people will have families and children, they cannot be expected to relocate to regional hubs in northern England and nor would the expenses conferred in doing so be reasonable. The same goes for businesses and national organisations who are based in London, partly to take advantage of the proximity to our legislators and policy formulators; they have no interest in moving to Hull or Sheffield.

Whitehall, which is home to the British civil service, plays an integral part in the day-to-day running of government and parliament alike. In order for government to function properly, ministers, backbenchers, and civil servants must be able to meet in person on a daily basis, not through email; moving the legislature away from the executive branch, 10 Downing Street, is laughable -especially given the fact that both the executive and the legislature are said to be constitutionally ‘fused’ together in parliament.

There is also the slight inconvenience of choosing where exactly to base the new parliament, the Guardian says Birmingham, the Economist says, ‘why not Manchester?’, whereas professor Mark Doel of Sheffield Hallam university says that ‘Sheffield needs it the most’ – throw in Leeds and Newcastle, with a sprinkle of David Lammy’s Tottenham constituency, and you have a national recipe for years of campaigning, debates, and more money. By that time parliament will have fallen into the river Thames - and what about Cardiff?

London has the best transport infrastructure in the UK, with Heathrow and Gatwick acting as global hubs for incoming business. Economist editor Bagehot says that Manchester airport is already expanding; yes, but Heathrow is bigger. In terms of rail infrastructure, London has eight major rail stations compared to Manchester’s two and Birmingham’s New Street station. The London underground is also one of the largest and most advanced metro network systems globally.

We should instead focus on relocating parts of the executive agencies such as the DVLA, which is based in Swansea. The government has promised to establish up to 20 new public agencies in cities outside of London after Brexit, dedicated to running the country after our expected departure from the EU in March. Not only is this a much more manageable task to accomplish, it would also allow for future investments to be made as these new agencies are created. Parliament, for now, must remain in the capital, until there is a proper proposal from government – with the costs and logistics planned out.

Sources and Further Reading

Image: Richard Hopkins @flickr

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