Image Credit: Annie Watson
Revelling in his Conservative majority after the 2019 General Election, from as early as January this year it has been rumoured by Downing street sources that Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is advocating a prolonged relocation of the House of Lords to York during vital Westminster renovations in the hopes of establishing a new hub of government in the North of England.
This is said to represent much of the new direction under this Conservative government to fulfil promises made to voters plucked from Labour’s red wall at the last election, to “level up” the UK and address growing concerns surrounding the inadequacy of representation for the vastly growing northern regions.
In a letter to David Goldstone and Sarah Johnson (overseeing the renovation and renewal programme) the PM has now officially expressed a personal desire to consider York as the mainstay for the temporary decanting of both the Lords and the Commons as need for repairs on the Historic centre of government are swiftly approaching.
In The Telegraph, it would appear that positive assurances on the creation of a northern hub are seen in these letters. This is evident in his writings, stating that the government was already working on a hub in York and that "it would, therefore, make sense to consider this as a potential location.”
Competition is stark though, the current plans propose alternative locations in London such as Richmond House, Queen Elizabeth II Centre and the Olympic park being proposed. Other cities are also battling for the prestigious move with Birmingham’s public library and Manchester’s City Hall also touted.
However, the plans have not been met with the optimism Mr Johnson may have hoped for. Many locals feel the unelected upper chamber of parliament are already so disconnected from society and by moving them to a different location, little is said to be achieved in satisfying and understanding the North’s concerns thoroughly. Members of the opposition and Peers have derided the proposals, stating that this is nothing more than a PR stunt and that the Prime Minister is exercising phoney displays of genuine devolution that has been longed for.
Peers themselves have been critical, as Lord Singh of Wimbledon said York was "seen as something of an outer Mongolia by the general public, who view the House of Lords as an outdated institution". This is a harsh claim, but the fact remains that many agree, York is not representative of the less-affluent and “left-behind” Northern towns and cities.
This government has pledged to shake up the traditional, London-centric institutions of Whitehall and Parliament, moving the House of Lords and now possibly the Commons to York certainly follows this rhetoric. However, moving the upper chamber to York, a wealthy city with a liberal centre is hardly a radical change from the capital. Thomas, a local interviewed by The Guardian, aptly put it “It’s not really representative of the north – it’s not Macclesfield, you know?”
More effective would be to increase the opportunities available to people from all backgrounds to engage in politics and campaign their way to an elected chamber, rather than place an unelected one on their doorstep. This view is also held by education guardian Chris Nunns from York “Instead of moving the House of Lords here, we should have more regular people with good ideas in politics, rather than the usual Oxbridge types.”
Despite this, if senior civil servants relocate also, demand for housing and office space in York could increase leading to up to 2,500 homes and 112,000m2 of office space being built. Therefore, the Lords could set a positive precedent for political hubs in the North, allowing for greater avenues of participation, generating demands for better infrastructure and provides boosts to the local economies.
Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, pressure is building to have the MPs move, as the more expensive option of working around politicians’ timetables has become less viable, due to rising costs from the pandemic. The move is expected to take place around 2025, though that date could be brought forward given the fire risk and frailty of Westminster.
Moving the house of Lords is a strong symbolic gesture but one hopes more pragmatic policies are to follow.