Originally published in CityMetric.
Finally, MPs have bitten the bullet and voted to move out of the crumbling Palace of Westminster while the dilapidated building is restored. And almost as soon as the vote was passed, the inevitable calls for parliament to relocate out of London kicked off again.
Serious thinkers have thrown their weight behind the campaign in publications including the Guardian and Economist, arguing that moving MPs and Lords to another city, or even cities, while the Palace is rebuilt would reconnect our despised politicians with the people.
But it’s a nonsensical – and cripplingly expensive – idea.
First and foremost, parliament is not just 650 MPs and 800-odd peers. It’s their thousands of staffers, and tens of thousands of civil servants up and down Whitehall and across Westminster.
For a government to function well, backbenchers, ministers, and civil servants need to work together – not just via email, but in actual physical contact in meetings. Moving the legislative part of our constitution hundreds of miles away from the executive branch would be the equivalent of hurling an entire shed full of spanners into the complicated workings of government, and paying hundreds of millions for the privilege of gumming up the system.
Don’t just take it from me. A 2013 EU study of the only parliament mad enough to actually shift from city to city (its own) found that moving MEPs between Brussels and Strasbourg cost at least €103m a year.
And it’s not just civil servants who would be cut off from the MPs they’re supposed to work with. Businesses, the City, charities, lobbyists, regulators and more who are all based in and around central London would face endless train journeys up and down Britain.
Like it or not, London isn’t just the legislative capital of Britain: it’s also its political, cultural and economic capital. Pretty much anyone and any organisation which wants anything to do with government, policy and politics has set itself up in London – and they’re certainly not going to relocate to Hull or wherever for six years just because MPs feel guilty about spending billions rebuilding the palace they normally work in.
Not only would there be vast, unnecessary costs and inefficiencies in making civil servants, lobbyists, and businesses commute to and from a relocated parliament, there’s also the problem of getting parliament to and from everywhere else.
London is the hub of the UK rail network and has better access to the rest of the UK than anywhere else. For instance, it’s quicker to get to, say, Wrexham, from London by train than it is from Sheffield, even though the latter city – sometimes touted as a possible host for parliament – is 100 miles closer.
And that’s assuming we could even settle on Sheffield, or any other city, as the new home of parliament. The bitter squabble over who would reap the benefits of hosting MPs and peers for six years would itself take years and cost millions. There is no consensus over what the UK’s second city is, with the second largest by population, Birmingham, lagging behind places like Manchester when it comes to local government powers and economic dynamism. And then there are the other capitals, in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast: should they not be front of the queue instead?
Even if we did somehow manage to coalesce around a single candidate without embittering half of Britain or triggering a series of lengthy judicial reviews, finding a suitably large and yet secure building would also be a massive challenge.
When looked at dispassionately, the choice of to stay inside the Westminster security cordon – a stone’s throw from Whitehall, a short walk from the rest of the UK’s leading businesses and cultural hubs, and with the fastest and best access to the rest of the country by train – Is the obvious one.
Yes, we all want to rebalance the UK’s economy and boost the neglected cities that have not seen the success that London has. But, sadly, the ship has sailed when it comes to toppling London’s supremacy, or even challenging it, as Los Angeles or Washington can to New York’s.
We can and should relocate offices and parts of the national infrastructure outside London, like the DVLA in Swansea or BBC Sport in Salford. But parliament, and everything else in its orbit, is not something that can be parcelled out to the rest of the country like some runners-up prize.
It’s fair to say that moving MPs across the road to a temporary building in the former Department for Health, as the current plan suggests, is not very exciting. But sometimes, the right option, and by far the cheapest option, is the boring one.