The North doesn't need the House of Lords, it needs the Government to end its silence on HS2
Devolving power away from Westminster and Whitehall would help to level up the Midlands and the North and give power back to local communities, writes Lord Kerslake.
I should at the very start of this piece declare an interest. My home for over twenty years has been Sheffield, just over an hour away from York. After Sheffield, York is one of my favourite cities in the North, and was in Viking times, its de facto capital. For devotees of Game of Thrones, ‘Lords of the North’ has a certain ring to it that might enhance our reputation.
It is also worth saying that for some time now, I have been a keen supporter of relocating Parliament outside of London and indeed supported a motion moved by Lord Adonis in the Lords last year to look at just this option. London is our capital city and home of government, our main business centre, and our largest gateway to the world combined. It doesn’t need to be all three and it isn’t the case on other countries, such as Germany. The need to move out for refurbishment provides a golden opportunity to look afresh at this – one so far that both Parliament and Government have been very reluctant to consider.
So why am I somewhat cynical about this story? Well firstly, the manner of its ‘announcement’ in an article in the Sunday Times. This was clearly a placed story not a leak. It was similar to the recent Times story that there would be a major shakeup of Whitehall departments – only then to be pulled back from within weeks of it running. We are told in the Sunday Times article, as we were in the departmental shakeup story, that this is a plan of the Prime Minister himself but so far, we have heard nothing directly from him.
In short, it looks like a bit of kite flying to test the reaction. I can tell him now what the likely response of the noble Lords on his own side will be and it will not be pretty. This sort of casual approach to government announcements may make for good copy but it has consequences, not least for the loyal and excellent staff who work in the Lords for whom it just creates anxiety and uncertainty.
Second in my reasons to be cynical about this story is its half hearted nature. Why just the Lords and not the whole shooting match? We are told that the House of Commons will go ‘on tour’, holding several days of debate outside London. Leaving aside the logistical challenges of this, I really wonder if it will bring MPs closer to the people. If you genuinely want to break away from the ‘Westminster Village’, a decisive and permanent move of the whole of Parliament to say, Birmingham, would make much more sense and would be a really potent symbol of change.
Third and final in my doubts is that the Government has so far been silent on the one thing that really is most exercising northern leaders of all political parties at the moment – the future of HS2. There is complete unanimity on the part of the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street and the Labour Mayor of Leeds, Judith Blake that delivering the whole of HS2 is absolutely vital. This is not about faster trains but renewal of our ageing rail network, an essential part of ‘levelling up’ the Midlands and the North. Immediate publication of the independent Oakervee Report followed by a wholehearted commitment by the Government to ‘Get HS2 Done’ would be a much more tangible sign of the Government’s determination to bring the country together.
A constitutional review is apparently planned for the spring. This would be very welcome so long as it asks the right questions. How will we devolve power away from Westminster and Whitehall in what is the one of the most centralised countries in the developed world? What do we want the future role of the Lords to be and should it be directly elected? How can we reinvigorate Localism and give real power to people and communities? Why do we continue to persist with the grievously unfair first past the post voting system?
A fundamental review of this sort is long overdue and would be of much more value than shortening my travelling time at weekends.
Lord Kerslake is a Crossbench Member of the House of Lords.