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.
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.