At the outset, I must confess that this isn’t a strictly original idea. I first came across this innovative proposal from the social geographer Danny Dorling – though the idea has undoubtedly acquired newfound relevance in recent months.
Indeed, the policy has plenty of merits – not least that Boris Johnson has in effect already turned Downing Street into a frat house.
Primarily, flogging the mansion to a luxury hotel chain would send a signal to those in high office. It would signal that they cannot break the law, repeatedly, without consequence. It would signal that they cannot berate the custodians and cleaners who had the audacity to mop up their wine stains and remind them of the rules. It would signal that Downing Street belongs to the people, and that we can rescind the membership of those who use it whenever we please.
But there would be added benefits too. Aside from contributing a significant sum of money to the public purse during a cost of living crisis, it would force us to consider where power should be located – or relocated – in modern Britain.
Westminster would surely be bottom of the list – its overbearing architecture a breeding ground for pomp, arrogance and abuse.
Politics needs to be radically reformed, and that must involve exporting those in power out of the Westminster bubble – and out of London entirely.
By inhabiting the capital, ministers, MPs and their various stooges have developed a warped understanding of Britain at large. London is an economic, demographic and cultural outlier, with little resemblance to the rest of the country – and Westminster is the gilded inner crypt of the fortress.
Economic output in London, measured in terms of gross value added per hour worked, is 30 per cent above the England-wide average, and 55 per cent above the lowest-performing region. According to the Industrial Strategy Council, the country’s most productive region, west inner London – which includes Westminster – has an income per-hour that is 70 per cent higher than Northumberland’s.
This economic cleavage has been encouraged by successive governments – perhaps partly as a result of MPs being encamped in the capital. London’s latest commuter train service, Crossrail, opened in late May and is expected to cost some £19 billion. And this gargantuan rail project is indicative of recent administrative efforts.
From 2009-10 to 2019-20, London transport spending per head was £864, compared with £379 in the North West and £413 in England overall.
London is an alternate universe, and the power-brokers in Westminster – including those who catalogue our national story – are stuck in its orbit.
“Journalists go out of their own door to cover stories,” says Dorothy Byrne, the former editor-at-large of Channel 4, born in Paisley, Scotland. “So journalists will often cover the issue of commuting to work by going on the London Underground. If journalists had been forced to experience, as you and I have, the horror of trying to travel regularly between Manchester and Leeds on a train or any road, they would soon be writing different stories.”
The same could be said for politicians, who try to fix problems that are locally apparent.
Moving the nerve centre of government to another part of the country would therefore provide a new vista for MPs and reporters who have long been captured by the bright lights of London.
As a result, it’s likely that a renaissance of economic and social activity would mushroom around the gentrified masses of Londoners relocating elsewhere.
New economic hubs would inevitably spawn outside the capital, gravitating towards the people who control the country’s coffers.
Meanwhile, kids from all parts of the country would be able to dream of professional success, without having to spend their life’s savings on a mould-infested dungeon in Hounslow.
Plus, for the hotelier that chooses to acquire Downing Street, it can spend its cash safe in the knowledge that behind the famous black door is a well-stocked wine fridge – and even a karaoke machine.
Fortress London: Why We Need to Save the Country from Its Capital by Sam Bright is published by HarperNorth and available to purchase now