It is time to face up to what should have become obvious by now… Westminster has had it day. The time has come to see it as the folly it always was, and bring it to an end.
No, this is not a call to grab your pitchforks and burning torches. Nor is it quite time yet to set up a guillotine on Parliament Green. Rather, it is time to accept that the Palace of Westminster is past its use-by date.
There are good democratic reasons for wanting to do away with Westminster. The London-centric nature of the UK economy that has helped to create one of the most inequitable economies on the planet is in large part the result of locating the seat of government in London. The soft corruption of the banking and finance lobby is fuelled by the proximity of the City of London, the Houses of Parliament and the Bank of England.
But there is a much more pressing physical reason to be done with the Palace of Westminster… it might not be there 50 years from now! Located next to a tidal stretch of the Thames in a part of the country that is slowly sinking, Westminster and its surrounds are at increasing risk of flooding with each passing year. In the 1980s, the Greater London Council put the Thames Barrier in place as a stop-gap measure to protect central London from flooding (the GLC headquarters were on the opposite bank of the Thames from Parliament). In 1986 – the year the GLC was abolished – early studies had begun for a bigger outer barrier between Southend and the Isle of Grain that would be required in 30 to 40 years’ time… i.e. around about now! And the GLC may yet turn out to be correct. In the 1980s, the Thames Barrier had to be closed just 4 times. In the 1990s, this rose to 35 times. The Barrier was closed 75 times in the 2000s; and 65 times by 2014 (48 of them in 2014 alone).
When the Barrier was built and the outer barrier was being studied, little thought was given to sea level rise resulting from climate change. The concern was that central London would sink beneath the waves solely because of its shifting geology. But today, tidal gauges and satellite measurements confirm that global sea rise is happening; and a lot faster than had been anticipated. A new paper from former director of NASA’s Institute for Space Studies James Hansen et al, suggests that sea level rise is accelerating. If this is so, levels not expected for another century could be experienced as early as 2050. Moreover, as the atmosphere warms and moistens, the storms and superstorms that have begun to affect the UK (such as those that flooded the Westcountry in 2013 and the north of England and southern Scotland in 2015) are likely to become much worse and much more frequent events. It is only a matter of time before central London gets the feared combination of a high tide, storm surge and high river levels that will leave the House of Commons debating chamber beneath the river.
This is speculative of course. There is little doubt that many of the world’s great cities – including London – are going to be inundated at some point. But it may not happen for another century or more. In this sense, maintaining the government in Westminster is like betting on the flip of a coin… head’s you’re flooded, tails you get a reprieve. And it is, indeed, a very expensive gamble; because MPs are committed to spending at least £6 billion to restore the Palace of Westminster – this figure had already risen from the £3 billion estimate the year before. We can expect – as is usually the case with this kind of project – that costs will more than double the original estimates. So we – taxpayers – may well end up shelling out more than £10 billion to repair a building that could well be subject to tidal flooding by the time the repairs are complete.
There must – surely – be a building in the centre of the UK (perhaps Birmingham or Manchester or even Hull) that could accommodate our MPs and their staff for less than £10 billion, without the risk of flooding. But maybe – as with climate change itself – our political leaders will just choose to stick with business as usual. And maybe a lot of us will rejoice as they sink beneath the waves…