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Architects should be writing the brief for a new House of Lords

Paul Finch

Lords reform needs proper design analysis, says Paul Finch

News that government is thinking about expelling the House of Lords from London to a new home in York is another act in the multi-billion pound Palace of Westminster retrofit farce. As this column has noted before, architects have been hauled in to deliver a building but are not invited to be involved in the writing of the brief. This is not very intelligent.

Press reports say that when or if a decision on York is confirmed, there will be an architectural competition to provide appropriate premises which, in some mysterious way, will reflect the nature of the area’s existing architecture.

Only people who are making it up as they go along could imagine that an architectural competition, for a building which will reflect the most profound constitutional change since the Great Reform Act, should be based on aping local design styles. On the contrary, such a building should be as dynamic and innovative as the reformed upper house (details not yet decided!) is likely to be.

What is missing from the discussion so far is any definition of the desired outcome of Lords reform. Is it intended to reflect geography (regions and ‘nations’), the warp and weft of a multi-cultural and multi-racial voting populace, or the same thing as now, but up North?

Not just that: what about the procedural arrangements in respect of votes and select committee activity? Is it imagined that the arcane rituals currently observed by the denizens of God’s waiting room will continue? Why should they, if everything else is changing? What about remote voting, especially when the trains fail to arrive on time?

As the proportion of MPs with experience of anything other than politics declines, the proportion who think they are brilliant generalists increases

As the proportion of MPs with experience of anything other than politics declines, the proportion who think that they are brilliant generalists increases. Opinions trump experience, including those of ‘spads’ and other advisers who have little experience of the world as it operates, but lots about the workings of a system, which may explain our current profound distrust of politicians.

As some readers may remember, along with Nigel Coates, Jeremy Melvin and a group of smart designers, I was involved with a proposal for the British pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale called ‘Nextminster’ (sketch below), which would have explored the constitutional options and dilemmas raised by the Palace of Westminster project. Alas, the British Council did not think the idea warranted a team interview, but the ideas and issues are as live now as they were then. Perhaps we should brush it down and look for a sponsor.

Nextminster jpg

Nextminster jpg

Even earlier, also discussed in this column, was an idea about how a Parliamentary upper chamber might be constituted. The suggestion was that all the members of a reconstituted House of Lords should reflect specific interests, so that all relevant and groups would be represented. This was inspired by the example of the Lords spiritual, who sit in the upper chamber as time-limited representatives of the Church of England. Under a reformed system, you would immediately have all the major religions represented. Ditto ethnic groups, professions, trade unions, employers, women’s groups and so on.

The Boundaries Commission would be asked to extend its remit to review requests from any institution which believed it should be represented in the upper house. There might be some priority given to organisations which themselves conducted elections in respect of their own representatives.

For example, architects would certainly be represented; the organisation which would determine who its representatives might be would be the RIBA – a voluntary membership group with its own democratic electoral procedures.

It might be difficult for architects to become MPs, but their voices could still be heard under such an arrangement, whether in Westminster or York.


Readers' comments (5)

  • Unbelieveable tosh: this distracting nonsense falls into the 'let them eat cake' category and is an insult to any sentient being who understands that we live in the first quarter of the 21st century and not in some Charles' Dickens' fantasy world where we all tug our forelocks to our betters. We certainly don't need to waste time on a brief or a competition to replace this house of horrors - unless of course the intention is to ensure architects are the fall guys when it all goes Pete Tong - as it inevitably will.

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  • This entirely misunderstands what I wrote. Hey ho.

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  • Mr Wilson, if you consider the Lords to be a 'house of horrors', what do you make of the House of Commons, as currently constituted?
    Do you consider an upper house to be beneath contempt, that there's no need for a body of 'second opinion' to act as a foil to the excesses of the Commons?
    Perhaps we'd all benefit from two votes - for someone to represent our particular constituency in one house, and one to represent our wider party political views in the other?
    And there's the question of why there seems to have traditionally been strong resistance within successive parliaments to the idea of proportional representation - while, in the Brexit referendum, there was just that, enabling English preferences to prevail over those of all or any of the less populous other parts of the United Kingdom (or the colonies, as they could fairly be termed in this context).
    So many questions, and arguments for reform, so could Boris's plans for the Lords be treating them as little more than a red (or maybe blue) herring?

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  • More important that the House of Lords, England should be split up into regional governments to move away from the highly centralised governance its currently has.

    Briefs can then be drawn up for the following regional assemblies:

    "Northumbria" - Northern England

    "Mercia" - English Midlands

    "Wessex" - South West England

    "Anglia" - East Anglia.

    "Greater Sussex" - South East England

    "Greater London" - London Metropolitan area expanded to the M25.

    UK Parliament then is only responsible for strategic economic and international matters and defence.

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  • John Prescott's referendum on this subject showed the public is a very long way from finding it convincing, possibly because of the bureaucratic nightmare such a proposal would inevitably involve, along with gigantic costs and significant loss of identity (Hampshire equals 'Greater Sussex').

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