The pragmatic case for moving Britain’s capital to Manchester
ON TUESDAY the clerk of the House of Commons warned that the proposed repairs to the Houses of Parliament would cost even more than estimated. David Natzler’s intervention was just the latest indication of the battles to come. Another was the news, last month, that the Parliamentary vote on repairs to the Palace of Westminster had been delayed again. Eventually MPs will have to make several difficult decisions. For how long should they move out? How much can this reasonably cost? At what point does the cost of keeping the Palace working become untenable?
The vast Victorian complex by the Thames is in a dreadful state. It is riddled with asbestos, many of its windows are broken, its pipes are leaky and its spaghetti-like wiring is a fire hazard. The mainstream option is to move both houses of Parliament, Commons and Lords, out for a period of up to eight years. If this goes ahead the repairs are estimated to cost £4bn ($5bn) plus the cost of temporary accommodation. One option is to cover the courtyard of the Department of Health and use that as a debating chamber.
An alternative, backed by some legislators, is to shut parts of the Palace at a time. But the flagging electricity, drainage and heating systems are all unitary and should really be replaced in one go; doing so piecemeal will drastically increase the costs. And there are security risks: MPs would have to file along the pavement outside the Palace from their offices to the chamber. It is estimated that the bit-by-bit method would come to £5.7bn and take up to three decades to complete. Andrew Tyrie, chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, has rightly questioned the cost of either option. Some context: the cost of building the giant new Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport was £4bn.
Bagehot agrees with Mr Tyrie. The costs are outrageous. But having surveyed the basements and rooftops of the Palace, he also agrees with Parliament’s authorities. Simply fixing the building will cost a lot and making it a modern political centre will cost much more. Your columnist has a better solution: move Britain’s capital from London to Manchester. This proposal starts from a point that has nothing to do with the condition of the Palace of Westminster.
Look at Britain today and you see a country wracked by division. London and the south-east are wealthy but most regions are poorer than the European Union average. The general election in 2015 and the Brexit vote in 2016 saw the emergence of different political universes: metropolitans in the big cities and university towns, nativists in the post-industrial towns and countryside. To many the capital and its credo—liberalism, globalisation, immigration—constitute a foreign and threatening world. Scotland’s government is flirting with a new independence referendum. Hatred of what many treat as a venal, self-congratulating, incestuous establishment confined to a few boroughs in London drove last year’s vote to leave the EU. In many ways it was an anti-London vote.
This is consistent with international trends. America aside, the countries where right-populists are doing best are those in which elites are concentrated in single geographical enclaves: Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, the Randstad, Vienna, Budapest. Those countries where the right-populists have done less well are those in which the elite is spread between two or more centres: Germany, Canada, Australia, Spain, Belgium (and indeed Scotland; at least as far as its internal politics are concerned). Even if the major centres in these countries are more metropolitan than most areas, the fact that their establishments are split between multiple locations—Berlin and Munich, Toronto and Montreal, Sydney and Melbourne, Barcelona and Madrid, Namur and Brussels, Edinburgh and Glasgow—probably makes these less complacent, blinkered and self-regarding.
So much of what is wrong with Britain today stems from the fact that it is unusually centralised. Draw a circle with a 60-mile radius centred on Charing Cross. Within that circle the vast majority of public spending is administered. Also: all major decisions pertaining to foreign policy, defence, the economy, the national debt, interest rates, what will be shown on television and in cinemas, what will appear on the front pages of the big newspapers, who can get a mortgage, who is allowed into the country, the social and civic rights of the individual citizen. That circle contains all the major banks, most of the major theatres, the media and arts worlds, the five best universities (according to the Times Higher Education rankings for 2017), the hubs of all the country’s major industries, 70% of the FTSE 100, most of Britain’s airport capacity. The divide between Britain inside the circle and Britain outside it concentrates too much power within too few city districts, centred on too few restaurants, bars and social circles. It poisons the country’s politics.
And it weakens the country’s economy. Economists agree that one of the major reasons for Britian’s dismally low productivity is that it has too few big cities: London sucks investment and talent away from regional hubs that might one day develop into conurbations of its size. Speaking to me recently Philip Hammond cited the integration the northern English and Midlands economies as the single shift that could do most to close the economic divides that rend Britain. He has a point.
So here’s a plan. Take the dire state of the Palace of Westminster, and the paucity of good ways of managing and funding the necessary repairs, as an opportunity to rebalance Britain by making a city other than London the capital. That city should be Manchester.
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Why? Some have suggested smaller cities: Bradford, York, Winchester and the like. Yet to pick one of these would be to ensure that London remains the country’s centre of gravity. Legislators would commute in for legislative sessions like MEPs going to Strasbourg. The point of the exercise should be to create two rival centres of the establishment. That demands a city with the attractions and capacity to counterbalance London; one capable of attracting government departments and their staff, the media, think-tanks, international investors and some businesses. One worldly enough to become a global power centre befitting Britain’s importance. Birmingham is a strong option as the second city by population and the most geographically and figuratively “Middle England” of the big cities. Leeds, too, surely deserves a mention.
Yet Manchester clearly has the edge. Its position as Britain’s de-facto second city is well-established (a YouGov poll in 2015 asking people which city other than London should be the capital gave it a huge lead). The BBC already has its second home there, in the MediaCity in Salford. Its infrastructure is better than that of Birmingham, it has more space to grow, its airport already has twice the traffic and twice the number of international connections. Birmingham suffers from being close enough to London to tempt people to commute from there (some already do). More than Birmingham or Leeds, Manchester has close physical and cultural links to all three other parts of the United Kingdom: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. At a time when the union is under strain that is valuable.
It is not hard to imagine the logistics. The old Manchester Central railway station has more than enough room to house the two houses of Parliament. It has already been turned into a convention centre and is often used for party conferences. It would cost relatively little to turn the building into two large chambers, which unlike those of Westminster would have room for all their legislators. It has a 15-minute tram link to MediaCity and is 15 minutes by foot from Manchester Piccadilly station. The nearby warehouse complexes could be turned into offices for MPs. The prime minister’s office could take over the rotunda of the Manchester Library. And Manchester is full of, and surrounded by, unused or underused former mills whose excellent connections to the centre make them perfect venues for government departments. The sale of ministerial buildings in central London would surely cover most or all of the costs of their conversion.
Who knows? Perhaps moving Britain’s cockpit from the pompous, forbidding, Oxbridge-college air of Westminster to these airy Victorian temples of manufacturing and entrepreneurial ingenuity would improve politics: making it more optimistic, accessible and ambitious. Meanwhile the creaking Houses of Parliament could be turned into a museum or cultural venue, maybe with philanthropic funding. Downing Street might be retained for ceremonial purposes.
The advantages would be practical as well as idealistic. Moving government out of London would free up housing, transport and office capacity that the current capital badly needs. It would make politics more accessible to those who cannot afford to live anywhere in or near London. Meanwhile that city would of course remain Britain’s economic centre and gateway to the world; a Barcelona to Manchester’s Madrid; a Glasgow to Manchester’s Edinburgh; a New York to Manchester’s Washington. The city on the Thames is surely dynamic enough to absorb the change without breaking a sweat.
Being closer to the physical centre of the country would save MPs, ministers and civil servants travel time and money. And the idea of moving the prime minister and her team out of Downing Street (cramped and scruffy even by the standards of much smaller countries) and into larger, more modern offices has been floating about Westminster for years. Jonathan Powell, who served as chief of staff throughout Tony Blair’s premiership, recently wrote: “I argued for leaving Number 10 and setting up open-plan offices in the government-owned Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre… which would have been much better suited to running an efficient government…”.
The shift would of course put pressure on Manchester. The city would have to accommodate many thousands of new residents. House prices would rise, the transport network would have to grow. Yet more than any other big city in Britain it has a record of dynamic civic leadership—hence George Osborne’s decision, as chancellor, to make it the hub of his “northern powerhouse”. The city already has a plan for expansion: 227,000 houses in the next two decades. That could be accelerated to accommodate the capital’s move. The Manchester tram network was built with the conurbation’s growth into surrounding towns like Oldham, Stockport and Bolton in mind; stations sit ready for urban centres to grow up around them. While London dithers over a new runway, Manchester Airport’s expansion is already underway. And the shift would bring advantages for Manchester itself: confirming it as the hub of the northern economy and thus driving its integration with various other cities (like Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield) as close to it as parts of the London Underground network are to Westminster. That in turn would raise living standards.
Manchester, it is true, is almost as metropolitan as London. Its centre, where MPs, ministers and civil servants would be based, voted for Remain in the Brexit referendum. But moving the capital there would help rebalance the country’s politics and economy nonetheless. For one thing, whereas the outer suburbs and commuter towns around London (where most senior establishment types actually live) voted to stay in the EU, most of those around Manchester voted to leave. In Manchester the over-close social connections between politics and the City of London (about which I heard all the time when interviewing Leave voters during the referendum campaign) would be loosened. That speaks to something bigger: the industrial profile and living standards of England’s north-west are much closer to those of the rest of Britain than are those of London and the south-east.
So although moving Britain’s capital would not solve every problem, it would go a long way to addressing the complaints that lead to today’s divided country. It would contribute hugely to the rebalancing of the economy. It would help drive the urban integration needed to raise productivity and thus living standards outside the charmed south-east. It would deny secessionists in Scotland their favourite talking point: the fusty public-school evils of distant Westminster. It would split the establishment bubble, making it more permeable and putting its leaders much closer to the ordinary voter. The move would be drastic, to be sure, but there are no mild solutions to the terrible state of the Palace of Westminster. Why not take this moment of upheaval and inconvenience and turn it into a chance to reshape the country?