28th March 2007 Articles
Now that the creation of a largely elected House of Lords seems likely, the location of this new parliamentary chamber ought to be a matter for debate. And the case for locating it in one of England’s regional cities should be considered.
As a Londoner who delights in the capital’s dynamism and diversity, I none the less agree with Ken Livingstone that London hosts too great a share of our national institutions. Where sensible, more should be located in other cities, particularly new or reformed institutions that involve new facilities.
Virtually no other state concentrates as much political, economic and cultural power in its capital city. Even Paris is less economically dominant than London and its hinterland. And whereas Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast have gained – or are gaining – their own devolved institutions, with the cultural and economic benefits accruing, the regional cities of England have gained little from devolution and other constitutional reforms since 1997.
The partial exception to our London-centric state institutions is the monarchy, which has always had peripatetic tendencies. The Queen spends as much time at Windsor as at Buckingham Palace when in the south-east, and makes her annual progress to Sandringham and Balmoral. It may not be a coincidence that the monarchy is the institution most associated with national unity.
So there is a strong case for locating the elected lords in one of England’s great regional cities. This would symbolise and promote a redistribution of political power not only beyond England but also within England, and could help counter the north-south divide. Manchester or Birmingham – the strongest of the obvious contenders – would be closer to the constituencies and homes of most of those elected as members of the new chamber. London would be two hours away for joint events with the House of Commons – although, as a member of the Lords, I am struck by how much the two keep themselves apart. Even the much-vaunted “ping pong” of legislation involves no joint meetings or consultations, but simply the ceremonial carrying of a manuscript copy of the bill in dispute from one house to the other by a bewigged clerk – a function that could no doubt be conducted by email in the modern age.
What of the practical argument against relocation, in terms of the servicing of the elected lords by ministers and civil servants, and the cost?
Of the 93 ministers who comprise the government, only 14 are members of the Lords, and all but two of them are junior ministers who do not attend cabinet, and only intermittently cabinet committees. As one of those junior ministers, I would see no difficulty in operating from Manchester or Birmingham. The parliamentary work would be the same. Meetings with MPs and ministerial colleagues could be comfortably accomplished on one day a week in London, with some meetings replaced by phone calls or video conferencing. MPs and London-based ministers could travel to the second chamber on occasion.
In some respects, having a dozen or so ministers located outside London would be positively advantageous. As schools minister, I frequently visit the Midlands and the north; but London and the south-east loom larger, and it would be a good thing to have a group of public-service ministers, in particular, whose offices are outside London.
As for civil servants, due to the large-scale relocation of departmental and agency staff, Manchester or Birmingham are closer than London for a growing proportion of senior officials and agency executives. The education department has more staff in Darlington, Sheffield and Runcorn than in London.
As for cost, the present House of Lords has been buying up buildings near parliament to provide basic – but still inadequate – facilities for its members, all of which would fetch high prices if the reformed second chamber were outside London. If the Lords did not relocate, there would be a need to buy or build still more property in one of England’s most expensive neighbourhoods.
What of the existing chamber of the Lords? Pugin’s masterpiece, with its golden throne and heraldic emblems, would continue to be the setting for the annual state opening of parliament, pomp and circumstance intact, including perhaps the appearance of the peers of the realm in full ermine once a year to demonstrate that British genius for entwining tradition and modernity. For the rest of the year, the chamber would make a splendid centrepiece for a much-needed visitors’ centre for parliament, opening the Palace of Westminster properly to the public for the first time.
And my immediate thought for the most suitable location for the elected lords? How about a waterside venue within the new Salford Quays development in Manchester, next to the Lowry and the proposed BBC centre (another welcome relocation of a state institution from London)? The elected lords would then have a large part of the BBC to themselves. What a privilege.