News: BBC World Service - Moving government out of London

Today there was a discussion on Dan Damon's 'World Update' for BBC World Service radio around the topic of moving government out of London which covered many of the topics underlining my thesis project (surprisingly, there is even a mention of moving Parliament to Huddersfield!).  The discussion was between Jonn Elledge (Journalist at New Statesman who recently wrote an article on moving the capital) and Prof. Tony Travers (London School of Economics) who advocates for London to remain the political centre.

The conversation ends with Prof. Tony Travers suggesting that if government were to relocate it should split up because he believes that moving in its entirety will just move the same issues of over-concentration somewhere else. This is an aspect I'm currently looking into further, particularly in regard to the relocation of Government Departments. I have conversations scheduled with senior members of the Department for Transport, Department of Health & Social Care and Department for Education which I hope will answer some questions I have in reference to traveling and responding to policy issues outside of London.

The full transcript is below, or listen back at 45:58 here

Dan Damon: London perhaps shouldn’t be the capital because things are changing right across Britain - London draws in the wealth and prosperity of the United Kingdom and it has unbalanced things, so should the capital be moved away from London?

Jonn Elledge:  As you say, London is overheated for want of a better word – housing and simply space in London is incredibly expensive to occupy, it’s quite an expensive place to live here. Around 100,000 people a year are being added to London’s population. One of the reasons for that is because it’s really the only significant power source, not quite in the United Kingdom, but certainly in England. It is the centre of all forms of power really – political, cultural, financial. If you look at a lot of other developed countries in the western world, if you look at the United States, or Italy, or Germany, or Australia, these types of power are distributed between a number of cities and the political capital is not always the most important in other senses. England is not quite unique, but certainly unusual in having all forms of power concentrated so much on one city and I think this explains why we’ve ended up with quite a geographically divided economy. The South-East of England, the sort of Greater London region as it were, is one of the richest regions in Europe, a lot of very wealthy and well-paid people down here. But other parts of the country, to the North and the West, are much, much poorer. Literally half the productivity in some cities. That feels faintly obscene to me. There are a limited number of options a government can take to actually address this, but one of them we that can is to move itself.

DD: Tony Travers, I was looking at a report today that the average house price in central London has fallen, but it’s still £1,300,000. The average house price in Greater Manchester is roughly £200,000. It is very unbalanced, isn’t it?

Prof. Tony Travers: There’s no question that the UK economy has been unbalanced for decades. This is not new and in fact if you look back through history there have been many times when London’s size and importance has been seen as problematic within the UK. You can read in 17th and 18th century, fear of London’s scale and success in Hogarth’s paintings. Of course, the other thing is I can think of plenty of cities in the world which are not capitals which suffer all these congestion problems - New York famously, Toronto, Sydney, Melbourne. All of these cities are not capitals but have all of these high prices that we see as a problem in London. Oddly, I think the thing that’s different about Britain, and the fear about Jonn’s argument that it’d be good to decentralise, is probably that there’s an over-concentration of power in government in Britain. Britain is a very centralised, particularly England, so to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is like being Mayor of England in many ways. It’s a very centralised country. That I think points to a different solution, which would be a radical devolution of power and allowing parts of the UK to keep their own taxes, spend money locally, make their own decisions, and actually none of that would be changed at all by just moving government from one place to another.

DD: Jonn, doesn’t an opportunity present itself now because they’re going to have to move out of the Houses of Parliament, they’re just fed up with all the mice and the dodgy wiring and are going to have to spend a lot of money redoing it. Now they’re trying to scatter the Parliamentarians around bits of central London, but why not move them? To Manchester, or Huddersfield, or somewhere outside?

JE: Well, I absolutely think we should. As you say, the Palace of Westminster is not fit for purpose - in places it’s quite literally falling down, which doesn’t feel like a great venue for a modern government when literally bits are dropping off every five minutes. If they’re going to have to move anyway, then yes, why not try temporarily at least to move them to a different city just to give them a different perspective on Britain. I think there is certainly a problem where by it is easier to persuade the politicians and the civil servants in this country of the need to invest to solve London’s problems because they see them every day. At the most basic level, civil servants are more likely to be convinced of the argument for a new railway link in London because their commute is very overcrowded everyday whereas they don’t see the fact that everyone in Leeds or wherever is having to drive to work through terrible traffic. Simply I think that shift of perspective would have benefits, even if it’s only a temporary move while they fix the Palace of Westminster.

DD: Yeah, let them try the buses out in the countryside Tony Travers, then they’ll know

TT: Well, I mean, there’s no question that if government went somewhere else it would undoubtedly think a bit more about that place. I doubt though that it would go to one place. I think that if government were to leave London, the question is would you just take House of Commons? Or just the House of Lords? Or Both? What about the civil service? I think that it’s unlikely that it would all go to one place. That would defeat the idea that Jonn’s propagating here. So, what you’d want to do would be that if it’s going to leave it should be split up. That would make a radical change to the way Britain is governed. Why the agriculture department should be in a big city I don’t know. If we’re going to try anything radical then let’s go for something genuinely radical that would change the way the country really is governed.  

 

Tom Ardron