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The Stupidest Suggestion of the Decade: Or Is It?

28/03/2016 15:46 | Updated 28 March 2016

What is my stupidest suggestion of the decade? That the UK should shift its Parliament from London to Birmingham. Absurd, crazy, mad - these are all the things that would be said (or even worse) but is it that stupid? When we start to analyse the facts and strip away the many vested interests in keeping Parliament in London, it doesn't seem that crazy at all.

The opportunity
First of all, we have a once in a century (or two) opportunity. Parliament is falling down. The 150-year-old Grade I listed building is partly sinking, contains asbestos and has outdated cabling. A 2012 report warned the building could suffer "major, irreversible damage" without significant restoration work. Major restoration of the Houses of Parliament without moving MPs and peers out would cost £5.7bn and take 32 years to complete. If MP and peers were moved out for six years, the cost would drop to £3.5bn, a still substantial sum. Why not consider using the money that would fund repairs to build a new Parliament outside of London, possibly in Birmingham, which is after all, is the centre of England and much more central than London is within the UK.
Reduce regional imbalances
It would make for a better country. In almost no other developed country in the world does the largest city dominate to the extent that London does in the UK. In some countries, such as the US and the Netherlands, the capital is not the largest city and this provides a balancing effect between two centres. Also, London dominates economically as well. It has a disproportionate level of economic activity compared to other parts of the UK fuelled by the financial services sector in the City of London.
Consequently, this situation results in the so-called two speed economy and creates absolutely massive imbalances in the UK by almost any indicator you wish to look at - income, wealth, health status, housing standards etc. Government attempts at dealing with this are generally half-hearted and doomed to failure by the fact that they are not really interested in what happens outside London. In spite of the Governments fanfare about the Northern Powerhouse, the facts disclose that nothing much is going to change. For example, the gap between London and the rest was made stark by new analysis showing Crossrail alone is earmarked to receive nine times more funding than all the rail projects from the North's three regions combined. Spend per resident on publicly financed infrastructure, was £5426 in London, £223 in the North East and similarly low figures in other regions.
Shifting the seat of government from London to Birmingham would massively reduce such imbalances. Firstly, there would be the positive economic impacts of the investment in government buildings that would be required. Then there would be large numbers of government jobs and associated spending. While there have, in the past, been limited attempts to transfer public sector jobs out of London, there is still a massive preponderance of governmental and quasi-governmental jobs in the capital. There is no logic to this in this age of modern communications. This focus on London also stimulates a concentration of jobs in the head offices of third sector organisations, even though accommodation and staffing costs in the capital are much higher than elsewhere. By taking a lead, government will encourage charitable bodies to relocate their head offices out of London as some, such as Oxfam and World Vision, have already done.
Thus shifting Parliament to Birmingham would not only result in massive shift in public sector jobs out of London but a similar shift in jobs for lobbyists, charitable organisations etc out of the capital. This would result in major economic development in the midlands, as has been the case in Wales and Scotland with the establishment of a Parliament/Assembly in Cardiff and Edinburgh. It would also ease pressure on housing in the southeast and put a break on the rampant house price inflation.
London could keep its Russian billionaires, "A list" celebrities, media luvvies, the Royal Family, traffic congestion and air pollution. In fact, it might look something like a combination of a Hollywood film set and a living museum. Birmingham would celebrate being the seat of government and power for the United Kingdom with all that goes with that.

Improved government arrangements
Nobody would seriously argue that the current accommodation for Parliament is ideal. MPs often have to wait months for any office space and then they sometimes have to share a phone box office with several other people. There is a poor availability of meetings accommodation such that MPs often have to meet constituents or other persons in corridors or a café. Having a new Parliament building would provide for more suitable accommodation and better government. Who knows - it might even foster a re-think about the rather antediluviun ways in which Parliament operates.

The precedent
So is there a precedent for this - yes there is. In 1960, Brazil decided to shift its capital from Rio de Janeiro to the newly constructed city of Brasilia in the centre of the country. At the time this was proposed, all of the vested interests in politics, the media, the chattering classes etc preached doom, gloom, and the end of the world. As it happens, it seems to have worked quite well. I have worked in Brasilia and I can testify that it is a well-organised city of 2 million people with good transport infrastructure, housing and great shopping malls. It does of course lack the charm of Rio with its favelas, traffic snarl-ups, pollution etc but you cannot have everything.

The Likelihood
What is the likelihood of this ever happening? I would say something less than zero. One only has to think for a second about the influential vested interests who would be fiercely against such a proposal to see that it could never happen. It is not even possible to think that a government might ever be able to consider having a feasibility study of such a proposal undertaken for the simple reason that such a study might say it was a good thing. The UK is only a democracy in the sense that we can re-elect a new government every five years. In between elections, the views of the public are generally ignored and only the views of the London based elites count for anything. Bang goes the best chance of ever having any sort of equality in the UK

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