Yesterday the government has published its long-awaited Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill setting out its plans to repair the dangerous and crumbling Parliamentary estate. As part of it, they’ve also launched a new consultation on plans to temporarily move MPs out of the Palace of Westminster.
The proposed project will cost up to £6bn and see MPs and Lords leave the Palace of Westminster for several years as the works take place.
But the plans for both the temporary chamber – to be located nearby in a refurbished and rebuilt Richmond House and the restored Westminster chamber itself are a wasted opportunity to re-think how we do politics.
The architecture and design of a building says a lot about the values, principles, and priorities of those within it – moving MPs out of the crumbling palace of Westminster presents a fantastic opportunity to trial new ways of working in Parliament, and build a chamber that would change the culture in the corridors of power, and help rebuild trust in our political institutions.
You can see how this has been done in the other chambers built in the UK in more recent times. In Wales, the glass exterior that surrounds the Senedd building is based around the concepts of openness and transparency – designed to make visible the inner workings of the Assembly and encourage participation in the democratic process.
In Scotland, the Parliament’s semi-circle shaped seating is designed like many other modern legislatures to blur political divisions. While it is natural that parties may strongly disagree, at the end of the day they all have to sit together and rub shoulders, as the people of Scotland do. Rather than being cut off, windows are positioned to give MSPs sight of the surrounding city and landscape beyond – connecting them visually to the land that elected them.
Both are a far cry from Westminster’s windowless chamber that sees parties lined up to bray and hector each other across the chamber – with the distance between the opposing benches, by apocryphal tradition, intended to be just over two sword lengths – a design feature included to prevent disputes descending into armed duels.
It’s such features that make the proposed design of the temporary commons chamber which almost exactly mimics the original even more bizarre – and a missed opportunity to build a chamber fit for a modern politics.
This isn’t an argument on the value of different forms of architecture. It’s perfectly possible to build a gothic building with MPs sitting together.
This is not the first-time parliamentarians have failed to grasp this opportunity re-think the design of the commons. In 1941 following a German bomb attack on the Houses of Parliament which severely damaged the commons a new design for the re-built chamber was debated by MPs with many arguing in favour of a modern horseshoe or semi-circular design. Ultimately, it was decided to rebuild the chamber as it was before – reinforcing the two-party system.
Around the world, while some former colonies like the Bahamas, Zimbabwe and Uganda adopted the design, many others adopted the horseshoe – including New Zealand and Australia.
But as we see today this politics is failing. The Brexit deadlock shows the failure of MPs to build consensus across the chamber and the continuing decline in support for the two main parties shows the public is losing faith in them also.
It makes little sense to re-build a chamber that embeds these divisions when it is so clear to the voters that they’re not serving the needs of the public.
We need a political system where the seats in Parliament actually match how people vote – but we also need a chamber that encourages those MPs elected to work together in the interests of the people who put them there.
A modern, open and more circular chamber could begin to shift the culture of our politics in this direction and end some of the bitter divisions between parties we see today.
We will continue pushing for the political reforms we need but with yesterday’s announcement, Parliament has an actual chance to re-design our democracy. So now more than ever it’s vital they grasp this opportunity and design a chamber fit for the modern politics we need.