Saturday, 12 December 2015

Where should the UK's parliament be?

This post has really been prompted by two considerations. Firstly, there is the simple fact that the current main building that houses parliament and its necessary associated functions is, to put it bluntly, in the process of falling down. In addition to that, the other associated buildings are barely fit for purpose, and any form of expansion in the centre of one of them most crowded and expensive cities in the world is obviously going to be a problem. Now is a perfect time for considering exactly what we do about the location of parliament, and I don't think we should be afraid to point out what is probably blindingly obvious to most people outside the 'Westminster bubble' itself.

The second, and more important, is the fact that the UK's parliament has long been tucked away in one corner of England, pretty much as far as possible from the other constituent nations of the UK (there may some sound historical reasons for that, of course!), and far from being central to England itself. This has had a clear effect on the way that the regional economies have developed within the UK, and in the modern world it's creating a problem for everyone. London has long been an effective drain on the resources of other parts of the UK with its centralisation of economic activity around the area of political power. This is not a coincidence, of course, though it's not an issue for which anybody should really be blamed either, since it has grown over centuries where transport communication was nothing like what is possible today. Many of the things that were centred on London really needed to be geographically located in close proximity, but that is quite clearly, I think, no longer the case.

But let's not pretend that this has all been great for the London area itself - it certainly hasn't. Overpopulation has caused massive issues for living costs, transport, housing, pollution and air quality, not to mention the fact that London also happens to be in one of the worst spots in the UK for enabling effective collection of large amounts of water. Though it's easy to look at the overall figures and say that the London area is doing just fine, the reality is that everyone is suffering in some way, and the less well off the more they are suffering. The UK has plenty of land to home its population and more, but the south East of England, and London in particular, cannot realistically sustain the population levels it has. The answer to that issue seems to me to be fairly obvious - we have to look at how we distribute population less ludicrously unevenly across the UK.

There is also a political cost of having the centre of power located in the the big city in the far corner of the union, and from two perspectives. Firstly, while there is an inevitable 'bubble' around any centre of power that skews political debate and over-emphasises the importance of some issues (and under-emphasises others), this certainly isn't helped by this particular kind of location. 'The North' really can be a long way from the life experience of many of the people who hold the strings of power, let alone such weird, foreign places as Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The reverse is also true - London is about as remote as it possibly could be from these places, and the people there know it. It's really not a healthy situation for the UK state as a whole, and for our various parts to work positively together in an atmosphere of mutual trust. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the location of parliament, with all that results from it, is a significant factor in issues like the potential break up of the Union by Scottish Nationalism - if London hadn't been so physically remote that it was able to become so politically (and socially) remote, I think things might very well have been very different over history of the Union and its government.

It would be nonsense to pretend we can burst the 'bubble' entirely by simply moving parliament, of course. There will always be an element of that situation, no matter where parliament sits. It is a reality that every country has to live with, and that everyone involved with politics should remind themselves about constantly (many, in all political parties and associated hanger-on groups, do not do that nearly enough, but that's perhaps a slightly different issue). At the moment, though, we have a 'bubble within a bubble' - London is so different and remote from the rest of the UK that it has its own bubble issue, and Westminster has another bubble inside. Double-bubble equals double-trouble (sorry - couldn't resist that bit of cheesiness!).

It would also be nonsense to pretend that we would solve all the problems of London itself overnight by simply moving the politicians out. That's not going to happen either - it will still very much be the economic heart of the country in many ways, and almost nothing will change that (if something catastrophic enough to change that comes along, the niceties of 'bubbles' will be the least of our worries!). We can do other things, of course - we can look at the concentration of government departments in London too. The historical growth of them around parliament was obviously inevitable, but times have changed - to but it bluntly, we no longer need to communicate by horse and carrier pigeon. There is no real need for government departments to be next to parliament, or next to each other, so let's spread them about a bit. Does it really make sense, for example, to have a Ministry dealing with Agriculture to be located in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world? I'm going to say not! While we can't solve London's over-population issues overnight, we can potentially spark a process of change that would gradually reduce the problem over time.

Of course, there will be those who take an attitude of 'you can't possibly do that', but many of them will be people living within the 'bubbles' who fear any change that might see them having to move just a little bit out of their own associated personal bubble. 'But I might have to move to....THE NORTH!', well, sorry (not sorry!), but so be it! We need to take action to address the problem we have, and we could also do with distributing our high-paid civil service and political posts around the country a bit, for the good of everyone. There is obviously a case for leaving some functions in the London area - since most embassies are located there, for example, it would make some sense to have the Foreign Office functions continue in their current location. We shouldn't be dogmatic about doing things that make no sense, of course, but I don't believe that that means we should do nothing to address the current situation.

So that all brings me back to where we started - where should the UK's parliament be? Well the obvious answer is 'somewhere in the middle'. that's not as easy as it sounds to work out in a place that happens to be as oddly shaped as the UK, though. There are various opinions as to what constitutes the exact middle of the UK. In considering the question, I thought I'd take a fairly blunt approach in the first instance - get a map, and start drawing lines between significant points at opposite 'ends' to see where they crossed. They don't all cross at the same place, of course, but a significant number do seem to cross around one particular place. Many of them cross in the sea, in fact, which led me towards further considerations of where was close to that bit of sea, and about communications with the various parts of the UK. I did, in the end, come to a firm conclusion as to where was the best place to put parliament.

Before I specify that, I'm just going to speculate that some people will really not like the answer, but that is more down to their own ideas of the place than its reality, and doesn't take into account the benefits that would inevitably be brought as a result of becoming the seat of government for the UK. So there we have it - my answer is Liverpool. Roughly central-ish to the UK as a whole, with pretty good links to all of it (including direct links to the capital of Northern Ireland, which all too often gets overlooked in such considerations). Much closer to Wales and Scotland than London is, obviously, but still close to the large centres of population in the Midlands and North, as well as being reasonably easily accessible to the South East.

In the current situation of over-centralisation and building on the point of collapse, I think we should be seriously considering moving parliament, and building it a new home in (or more specifically on the outskirts of, where expansion would be possible) Liverpool. Whether such a thing happens, however, will ultimately be in the hands of the already multi-bubbled, and the cynic in my suspects that they will dismiss the idea any way they can, on the basis that they would rather not have to go there (as much talk as there is of a 'Northern Powerhouse', I'm not sure that translates to our political 'elite' wanting to actually have to be located within it!), and would rather stay in the city that some people laughingly refer to as 'the centre of the World'. It isn't 'the centre of the World', it isn't even the centre of the UK. It is, quite frankly, a dreadfully unsuitable place to have our parliament. It's not where anybody should really have chosen to put it, and now we have an opportunity to make that choice again we should use it, and I think we should put it where it makes some kind of practical sense, which I believe would be Liverpool.

No comments:

Post a Comment