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Commons

Can there be any more exciting a discovery than a lost city in the jungle? The archaeologists don’t even have to dig, because the buildings still stand, albeit concealed by the invading vegetation.

What causes a civilisation to abandon its greatest monuments and return to a more modest way of life? Is it warfare? Disease? Environmental catastrophe? Or is it a sense of self-disgust – a symbolic association between the rottenness of a society and its most prominent architecture?

It’s question worth thinking about as we contemplate the temporary closure of the Palace of Westminster for extensive renovation. Proper repairs could take several years to complete, so both the House of Commons and the House of Lords would have to find alternative accommodation.

Ian Jack in the Guardian has great fun considering the various possibilities. His serious point, however, is that the big move should coincide with constitutional reform:

“…is this the chance – perhaps the last chance – to hold the United Kingdom together with separate parliaments for all four nations and a federal assembly to replace the Lords? In which case, an English parliament could return from its temporary exile to the Thames-side site, where it has convened since the 13th century, while the federal assembly established itself somewhere that was more centrally placed for all four nations…”

But whether the new site becomes a new federal capital or merely a temporary refuge, we’d still need to pick a location:

“York usually crops up in this connection. Just north of it, an old sign next to the railway says the traveller is halfway between London and Edinburgh; by train, just over two hours from each.”

This would be convenient for the English and the Scots, but when you takes Wales and Northern Ireland into account it is the North West not Yorkshire that looks like the best bet:

“Wigan, for example: 2hr 30min from Glasgow, 3hr 30min from Cardiff (an hour less from Bangor), 2hr from London and 3hr 6min from Newcastle. Lancaster, Preston and Warrington are also promising; and Crewe, of course – not for nothing did it become the Victorian byword for connectivity.”

As Ian Jack points out, the region contains many fine buildings that could serve as a Parliament’s northern base. Top of his list is Rochdale Town Hall:

“Like Westminster, it has a tall clock tower, a great hall with a hammerbeam roof and a river running out front (though presently underground). Inside, the tiles and the stained glass are said to be perfection, matched against murals that depict the inventions of the industrial revolution and the signing of the Magna Carta. Rochdale-born Gracie Fields spoke to cheering thousands from the balcony…”

Well, that sounds splendid – but assuming that we don’t take the radical step of moving our capital, is it worth re-housing Parliament anywhere else than London?

As a temporary measure, I would say certainly not. Sending our MPs up north – or on a roadshow around the country is a good idea for a newspaper column, but otherwise a complete nonsense. Why on the earth would we want to create a British version of the farce in which the EU Parliament shuttles between Brussels and Strasbourg?

Parliament doesn’t just occupy the Palace of Westminster, but a number of nearby buildings in which hundreds of MPs have their offices. Relocating for a few years out of London would mean mothballing expensive new buildings like Portcullis House for no good reason.

Moreover, because our ministers are also parliamentarians, moving the Houses of Parliament would mean moving Whitehall too. This might be justifiable as a permanent measure, but not as a temporary one.

So where else in central London could Parliament go? Some might suggest the Zoo or the bottom of the Thames, but I have more constructive suggestion – literally. The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre just across Parliament Square is a modernist horror that disgraces its location. It is a waste of space in every sense of the phrase and its immensely valuable site (owned by the Government) should be redeveloped.

At first, it would house the displaced MPs and Peers from across the road. Then it could be sold or leased to offset the cost of renovating the Palace.  While we’re at it we could even turn Parliament Square into a genuine public space instead of the barren and traffic-beseiged island that it currently is.

33 comments for: If the Palace of Westminster has to close for repairs, where should Parliament move to?

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