MPs and peers will have to move out of Westminster in 2020 so Parliament can undergo a £5 billion refurbishment. In response, some pundits have suggested temporarily relocating our legislators to one of the regions. Many more say this is a crazy, expensive, unworkable idea.
Here’s an even crazier idea: relocating Parliament permanently.
It’s crazy because it would be hugely disruptive. MPs, peers and senior civil servants have first or second homes near Westminster, and they’d all oppose relocation; so would many others, especially in the South East. People like London. It’s a big chaotic powerhouse of business, politics and culture.
But sometimes, a crazy, expensive, unworkable idea may be the only rational course of action.
London is the most dynamic city in Europe. Its economy is so powerful that it’s virtually a state in itself. It already houses a sixth of the UK’s population – equivalent to the whole of Scotland and Wales – and still it grows.
Unfortunately, London’s success is also killing it. Its elite may be protected from the worst effects of this but for ordinary people, quality of life is getting worse. From infrastructure failures to house prices and traffic jams, London is clogging up – but every government consultant wants to assist more growth, as if size was a test of their own virility.
Most other English cities are in decline. Cities made great by the Industrial Revolution are now collapsing economically and socially. They no longer have the cheap labour and captive imperial market of a century ago.
To reverse this decline and save London from itself, we have to challenge the South East’s monopoly. That means making London less magnetic. Relocating the UK’s financial hub would be wonderful, but you can’t tell the world’s banks to up sticks just to suit us. (Post-Brexit, it’s hard enough to stop them leaving the country altogether.)
We can, however, relocate Parliament and the civil service – because the one thing government can legislate for is itself. The impact would be dramatic: moving the Westminster and Whitehall village would affect nearly half a million people. And half a million people generate a lot of economic activity.
A new capital city would satisfy two massive needs: relieve pressure on London and energise a different region. And at a time when England’s union with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is unravelling, a new capital city would help the UK redefine itself for the future.
I floated this idea in a submission to the Wolfson Economics Prize in 2014 and more recently in a proposal for a Radio 4 documentary. It was defeated, however, by the prejudices of Britain’s political and media elite in the south of England, who feel passionately that London’s place at the heart of the nation – and their place in it – is set in stone.
But elites are always conservative until forced to face reality. In the last 200 years, the USA, Finland, Greece, Canada, New Zealand, India, Turkey, Australia, Lithuania, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Nigeria, Germany and Burma have all moved their capitals. They did so not for fun but to survive, and so must we.
The north needs to tell the south, therefore, that the case for a northern capital is inexorable. That’s why I’m asking academics and researchers around the world to help identify the arguments that might be used against a new capital and show the government why they don’t add up.
I’m inviting local MPs, civic bodies and the media to get involved. I also want the backing of industry and regional interests, because this will be a costly campaign.
If you agree that moving the UK’s capital to the north would help catalyse parts of England that are struggling, please contact me. I’ll be touring the north later in the year, holding meetings and building contacts. If you can help, please get in touch.
Stephen Games is a designer and architectural historian, former architecture critic of the Guardian, and runs the New Premises research studio. He can be reached at email@example.com