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Goodbye, bear pit. Hello, Bull Ring

The next government could save £20bn on Westminster’s refit by building a new Houses of Parliament in Birmingham

Photo: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

You can do a lot of things with £22 billion. You could give a million NHS workers a 10% pay rise (cost: £4 billion). You could pay school teachers 15% more (£3 billion). You could fully repair 22,000 schools, replacing crumbling RAAC concrete and making them carbon neutral into the bargain (£12 billion). You could even cover 80% of the cost of Labour’s original, abandoned Green Prosperity Plan (£22 billion).  

Or alternatively, you could blow the lot on modernising just one building – the Houses of Parliament. Admittedly, £22 billion is the top-range estimate for the “Restoration and Renewal” project. The cheapest option is a mere £13 billion.

That our MPs can even be contemplating spending such vast sums on doing up their workplace is a scandal in itself. But Westminster has long since become a byword for scandal, whether it be cash for questions, MPs’ expenses, the personal peccadilloes of individual politicians or the distasteful manoeuvrings over a demand for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Each shameful episode has taken its toll on public trust.

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics on trust in our national institutions shows that just one in five people trust the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Only political parties are less trusted than parliament, with one in ten still putting their faith in them. Splurging £22 billion on modernising the Palace of Westminster would be a sure way of reducing those meagre trust ratings still further.

So, a word of advice to the 650 worthies who will form the next parliament: £2 billion will buy you a superb, spanking new home made of glass and steel. It won’t resemble a public school, a private members club or an Oxbridge college and it won’t have ancient corridors lined with portraits of the privileged white men who have wielded the levers of power for the last two centuries. Working class and female MPs and peers will feel less intimidated and more at home in its modern surroundings.

To see what’s possible, visit either the Senedd in Cardiff or Holyrood in Edinburgh. Of course, the new UK parliament won’t be called a palace anymore (no bad thing in a democracy). Oh, and it may not even be located in London. BBC Radio Four might have to change the name of its Sunday night politics show from the Westminster Hour to the Solihull Hour. 

But wherever it is, a new building would give MPs the chance to make a fresh start and put those malodorous SW1 scandals behind them. 

It would also give them a professional working environment that would make it easier for them to do their jobs. One obvious problem in the Commons chamber is the seating deficit. Currently, there are only 427 places for 650 MPs. Can you imagine a boardroom with fewer seats than company directors, or a classroom with fewer desks than pupils? 

Electronic voting is another basic feature of modern parliaments, yet our MPs have to vote with their feet, traipsing like cattle through lobbies where they are counted before the vote is announced. Electronic voting was used successfully at Westminster during the pandemic’s so-called “Zoom parliaments”, when many MPs worked from home, but it was decommissioned as soon as things returned to normal. 

A more controversial issue is the shape of the chamber. Westminster’s opposing benches design is based on the choir stalls of the chapel where the king, nobles and clergy originally gathered to discuss affairs of state. If today’s opposing parliamentary factions are made to face each other across the Commons, like rival armies preparing to go into battle, it’s not surprising they don’t behave like choirboys (or girls) during Prime Minister’s Questions.

In Europe, only the Czech Republic copies the Westminster layout. All other continental parliaments use the circular “hemicycle” configuration that discourages heckling and other loutish behaviour in favour of calm debate and mutual respect. As the Scottish parliament and Welsh Senedd can attest, when it comes to parliamentary behaviour, circular is civilised, oblong is obnoxious. 

If a new parliament was housed in Birmingham, close to the geographical centre of England, it would provide a huge boost to the regional economy, which has suffered significant deindustrialisation since the 1980s. Transport links to the UK’s second city are already good, with Birmingham airport and two major motorways close to the favoured construction site near the National Exhibition Centre. They will get even better when HS2 brings the train journey time to London down to 50 minutes or less. In recognition of what Brummies call their mums, it could be nicknamed the mom of parliaments.

Nothing would do more to restore trust in our national politicians than ditching the bizarre rituals associated with royalty, aristocracy and privilege and vacating an ornate Victorian-era palace for a sober, purpose-built parliament fit for the 21st century. It would be a bold statement of intent that Britain wanted to become a forward-looking country, eager to give real meaning to empty slogans such as “levelling up” and “building back better”. 

Instead of slavishly restoring Westminster at vast expense to the taxpayer, we should turn it into a Museum of Democracy. This money-spinning tourist attraction would pay for its own restoration, not as a parliament but as a theatrical venue for political pantomime, with actors and actresses reenacting legendary clashes between the likes of Gladstone and Disraeli, Heath and Wilson, Thatcher and Kinnock. 

For inspiration, we need only need look across the river Thames. County Hall, the former home of the Greater London Council, has been successfully transformed into the lucrative London Aquarium. The Palace of Westminster, a building as iconic as the Taj Mahal or the Parthenon, would be a much bigger magnet for tourists and visitors. 

So, what’s it to be? The most expensive refurb programme in British history, or a gleaming new parliament somewhere far from Westminster for a fraction of the cost? It’s the definition of a no-brainer.

Time for our MPs to do the right thing, cut the apron strings to the mother-of-parliaments and, for once, put the country’s best interests before their own. To quote the 1963 road safety campaign encouraging the use of car seatbelts: You Know It Makes Sense! 

Alun Drake is the author of “Fixing Broken Britain: A Blueprint for National Revival”

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