Thursday, 5 March 2015

Home Improvement

Home improvement is considered a bellwether of confidence by economists. If you're thinking about selling your home (and doing so for positive reasons, i.e trading-up), there is a good chance you'll invest some time and money to spruce it up first. Similarly, if you're not planning to move but have found your wages now go a little further, you may decide to invest the surplus in a lick of paint. Not only does this make you feel happier in your surroundings (increased utility, in economese) but it represents a form of saving because you are investing in an asset (in reality, paint adds nothing to a valuation, but we'll let that pass). So, how are we to interpret the uncertainty at Westminster as to whether they should repair the leaking roof and fix the dodgy wiring? If the economy really is looking up, surely George Osborne should be circulating swatches by now?

John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, reckons that it may cost £3bn to renovate and modernise the Palace of Westminster, and that decanting the Commons and the Lords may be unavoidable in achieving this. Some MPs espy bitter sarcasm in Bercow's claim, arising from their rejection of his nominee as Clerk of the Commons last year (he is pitching for both "management of the very highest quality and a not inconsequential sum of public money"), a highly amusing spat that was illuminated by the recent documentary series Inside the Commons. The implicit message is that the Palace faces a major challenge requiring project and change management expertise, rather than just an intimate knowledge of Erskine May and the ability to wear a periwig the right way round. He may well be right.

The Northern Powerhouse (TM) crowd see this as an opportunity to temporarily (or even permanently) relocate the chamber of the Commons to Manchester Town Hall, with this very act of displacement magically reviving democracy and causing our legislators to become sensitive to the needs of the hinterland. This ignores the fact that the Parliamentary Estate includes a number of other large buildings, notably Portcullis House and the two Norman Shaw buildings on Victoria Embankment, that are used as offices for MPs, support staff and select committees. You're going to need more than one spare Victorian debating chamber in the North, and you're also going to need temporary tenants for those other London buildings to defray their costs.

There is also the small matter of the executive, i.e. the ministry buildings along Whitehall, Victoria Street and Millbank. It would be impractical to have ministers shuttling to-and-fro on the West Coast line, and video-links would lead to the marginalisation of backbenchers and the select committees, so splitting the executive and the legislature looks unlikely to be acceptable to anyone. Given the cost and disruption, moving the entire government is a non-starter, no matter how much spare office space there may be at Salford Quays. In short, a move out of London simply isn't going to happen, which is probably why it's a favourite with media-chunterers. The preferred approach of the 2012 Parliamentary study on the issue would be for the Palace to be renovated in stages, with the core stage requiring a "decant" of the two chambers to nearby temporary facilities, such as the Methodist Central Hall or the QE2 Conference Centre.

The great unmentionable in all this is that roughly half of the Palace's space is dedicated to the House of Lords (or Peers, to be pedantic) and its various ancillary facilities, such as libraries, dining rooms and bars. There are roughly 800 peers (some are "on leave"), compared to 650 MPs. Though they attend less frequently than members of the Commons, and many do not have dedicated offices, the peers take up a lot of real estate. One solution to the problem would be to abolish the House of Lords. Though I'm not in favour of a second chamber, you could leave this open and suggest that a new body, however finally constituted, should be established elsewhere. Both Tamworth and Kenilworth have a certain historical plausibility, and an institution based in the Midlands would be one in the eye for the Northern Powerhouse (TM).

With the Lords gone, the decanting of the Commons would be a lot more straightforward. The entire Palace of Westminster could then be renovated. More importantly, it could also be remodelled. The issue with the building is not just that it needs to be patched up, but that it needs to be repurposed for the 21st century. One obvious improvement would be to move the Commons to the larger and even more venerable Westminster Hall, currently used for joint sessions and the occasional lying-in-state, which would mean that all 650 MPs could get a seat (the current chamber can only seat 427, though this could probably be increased if they knocked through the voting lobbies that flank the chamber and employed electronic voting instead). It's worth remembering that the chamber has moved before, having previously occupied the area of St Stephen's Hall (the current entrance corridor to the Central Hall) before the fire of 1834.

I don't claim to be an expert on the intricacies of the building and therefore what would be either feasible or most desirable, but it strikes me that the current Commons and Peers chambers (plus lobbies) could be converted to libraries, with the current libraries (which face South over the Thameside terrace) converted to offices. Of course, there is an argument that libraries full of old books that few people actually refer to are an indulgence (a Gigabit LAN would be of more value to MPs and their assistants), but I suspect the desire for some visibly antique "tradition", along the lines of the Bodleian or Trinity College, would win out. Alternatively, the chambers could be used for the more high-profile select committees (I'm sure Keith Vaz would love to lord it over the former Lords), or they could be given over to the commercial functions that seem to be increasingly central (and emblematic) to the Palace's purpose.

There is also an argument for converting the private chambers of both the Speaker and the Lord Chancellor to offices for MPs and committees. The Lord Chancellor is the "chairman" of the Lords, so would have no site-specific purpose post-abolition. The Speaker's chambers include an official residence. Though there is a rationale for being on-site - the speaker or deputy has to be in attendance at every session - I suspect a suitable bunk-up could be found somewhere else in the Borough of Westminster. Alternatively, if we went the full hog and abolished the Monarchy, I'm sure a grace-and-favour apartment in Buck House could be arranged.


  1. I wonder if you have a view on the election campaign.

    I am getting depressed over Labour's chances. Can you offer me any hope?

    The Tories seem to have unlimited funds. Some of their key people Lynton Crosby, Grant Chapps, George Osborne I would'nt want to touch with a cattle prod, but I respect them as political operators. Labour seem to be lacking a Mandelson type figure (or even Mandelson himself). Lord Ashcroft seems to be polling the country to death.

    William Hill's odd seem to indicate a lot of money going on a hung parliment with 2/9 for no overall control. They offer 9/2 for a Tory majority, which seems like a very good bet to me. Labour majority is at 12/1 seems about right unfortunately.

    I would be particularly interested in your view from within the M25. I have managed to avoid setting foot within the M25 for 10 years so I am out of touch. So often the mood of the country is set from London. Is it booming in there? Is it optimistic? How does it compare to 2010?

    1. I don't think the mood of the country is set by London. If it were, you'd never have heard of Nigel Farage. I'd also question the implication that Crosby, Shapps and Osborne are skilled operators. Objectively, they're failing to score with an open goal.

      The economy of Central London hasn't really stopped booming since the bounceback from the early 90s crash. The 2008-13 recession had little effect. Though the banking sector cut employment sharply, it spread job losses across the country (i.e. retail) despite the failures being due to London (i.e. wholesale). The City recovered its 2007 employment levels in 2014. Also, much of the wider recessionary impact fell on manufacturing and the public sector, both of which are relatively small in London.

      That said, there is a sense of multiple, overlapping economies in the capital, with many people facing low wages and high costs (the investment in London transport over the years has allowed the poor to be housed in outer London and ferried in for the service economy). If the country as a whole voted in line with London, Labour would have a clear majority. In the May-14 local elections, Labour got 37%, the Tories 26% and the LibDems 10%.

      The sad truth is that Labour are likely to fail to secure a majority (though 12/1 is worth a punt) because of fragmented support in the rest of the country. The media will bang on about Scotland, but I suspect the real secular shift is the slow decline of Labour across the North and Midlands, eroded by independents, Greens and UKIP.

      The one ray of hope is that if Labour do well enough to form a government - even in coalition - and can then implement some popular policies (i.e. anything that Mandelson would condemn), then they have a chance of arresting the decline and potentially putting the legacy of Blair behind them. The problem is believing that inside Miliband lurks a Lenin.

    2. Thanks for that most helpful. Your probably right about Crosby, Stills and Osborne. It's just that so far the Tories seem to have made fewer unforced errors than Labour. It's possible fate has left all the Tory errors for later. I hope that inside Ed lurks a Ralph, but the odds are against it.

  2. There is a trend among local councils to sub contract work to boroughs outside London to reduce the costs associated with being in London. I am aware that some London councils looking for Scottish boroughs to pick up their IT and systems work. Which is making my employees jumpy as they serve some London boroughs!

    The point is that given this why shouldn't the parliament use this opportunity to do the same? Why shouldn't this upgrading of the house of commons open up the debate? It would certainly be ironic given the social cleansing currently taking place.

    1. The problem (as I see it) is that the substantive debate about where and how power is exercised in this country is being obscured by the gesture politics of the media. They know that moving government to Manchester isn't going to happen, for a whole host of social and practical reasons, yet they indulge the fantasy. This is mere distraction.

      A better subject for discussion would be moving the City, the other pole of power that makes London overly-dominant. What we mean when we refer to "the City" is a set of legal privileges embodied in the Corporation. The days when it made logistical sense for finance to be based in London ended over 50 years ago with the decline of the docks and merchant financing. We could, by legislative fiat, transfer the privileges to Leeds or Manchester.

      The reason we don't is because this would entail publicly reviewing those privileges and admitting that a large part of "the City" is made up of parasitical financialisation, the facilitation of tax-dodging, and rent extraction via rigged exchanges. The City has survived by avoiding democratic oversight and remains expert at diverting attention, as it has shown over the last 7 years.

    2. That should read

      "Which is making my employers jumpy as they serve some London boroughs!"

      Not employees! I do not own the company!

  3. If parliament ever did move to Manchester then Yorkshire Independence would be a major issue within the amount of time it takes to say the words 'Geoffrey Boycott'.

    Manchester would make an excellent city-state though. They could power the entire city on bullshit.