A move to the north and other ideas to reform the House of Lords

Photograph: Alamy

If Boris Johnson is thinking of moving the House of Lords to the north – partly to get it out of his hair, and partly to suck up to the region of England most decimated by Thatcherism – York is the least suitable city to plonk it in (House of Lords: Conservatives look north for Westminster shutdown, 20 January). In reality, York is a bit of the south that just happens to be in the north geographically: a pretty, chocolate-box-lid tourist town, with lots of splendid medieval architecture, to remind their lordships, perhaps, of their feudal roots, an archbishop to partner the one living in Lambeth, no industry left, and a gleaming newish out-of-town university that doesn’t strike me (and I worked there temporarily some years ago) as reflecting “northern-ness” in any essential way. York is a lovely town, but it’s no longer “the north”.

Five years ago I suggested in a London Review of Books blogpost that parliament, as a whole, might relocate to another place temporarily, while the present building is being refurbished, in order to bring MPs closer to those of their electors that the “Westminster bubble” has rather lost contact with. My favourite choice then was Manchester; and that would be my ideal venue for the upper house today. It has a fine Victorian Gothic city hall, which in my view is architecturally superior to Westminster, and which surely could house their lordships comfortably. It also has two leading football teams. (You can’t get much more northern than that.)

Beyond this, however, Manchester and its environs have a strong claim to be the capital of a vital English “identity” quite distinct from, but just as important as, the one that London and Westminster represent: its industrial, nonconformist, creative, democratic and radical spirit. Boris Johnson might not feel comfortable there, but putting half of parliament in Manchester could help to bring the north and south together in the way he claims to want.

And I write as an (adopted) Yorkist.
Bernard Porter
Hull, East Yorkshire

• Moving the House of Lords to York would certainly do something to redress the imbalance between London and the provinces, but it is surely time to consider other important reforms. While Simon Jenkins is right in much of his critique of the Lords (York is just the place for a peers’ palace, Journal, 20 January), he is wrong to claim that its function is largely symbolic. The functions of a second chamber to reconsider, reject or amend – even if only temporarily – aspects of proposed legislation are important elements of our democracy, and their lordships have, on occasion, provided valuable restraint over the excesses of the Commons. Their debates are often more intelligent and better-informed, and always less confrontational.

The problem is that to a large extent the Lords is populated by a totally unrepresentative group of appointees. My concern is not so much with the fact that they are appointed but that they are in no sense of the word representative. This is not necessarily to argue for an elected house. Indeed I think an elected second chamber along the same party lines as the first would not only be a disaster but would still not be genuinely representative. A genuinely representative house would represent the composition of the population in terms of age, gender, social class, ethnicity and occupation (or lack of one).

It should not be beyond our collective wit to devise a system where members could be appointed or elected from say, the various professions, unions, industry and commerce as well as those on benefits. Those groups could be invited to submit names and CVs to a second chamber appointing committee charged with selecting, or organising the election of, candidates who collectively best meet the representational criteria.

It may not be easy to do and there could well be arguments about the categories, and the result may not be perfect – but then what is? It would certainly be greatly preferable to any of the alternatives so far canvassed.
Roy King

• Of course Johnson would love to shift parliament into the regions – the further away from the seat of power the better. It seems he’s already learning similar tricks by diminishing the power of the lobby (Press freedom: Parliament’s lobby system now at the heart of the battle, 20 January). If parliament is to hold government to account then it needs to be sitting on top of Whitehall. Moving the House of Lords to York would just be theatrics, and it’s not as if York hasn’t got enough visitors already. The obvious alternative, so far as Yorkshire is concerned, is to devolve power to a Yorkshire parliament, but the slogan “power to the regions” rarely leads to genuine devolution.
Colin Challen
MP for Morley and Rothwell, 2001-10

• I am very disappointed in your article about the prospect of the House of Lords moving to York (Citizens not starstruck by proposal, 21 January). Major regeneration proposals need to be assessed carefully, but with an eye to the possibilities of a different future for northern cities and towns. Unlike the Guardian, the local paper managed to find quite a few people who like the idea of the Lords plan, which would be a major improvement on the current plans for the disused land next to York railway station.

We are well aware that too many in London want York to be a historic theme park for rich people, which is why it is currently the most unequal and unaffordable city in the north of England. If that is to be changed, it needs a major new vision and courage by local and national politicians. The recent decision to take traffic out of the city centre is a major step in the right direction.
Richard Clark

• One thing that moving the Lords to York would do is to greatly increase the travel expenses paid to members. A new Lords library briefing shows that, of the peers who declare their regions of residence, almost 55% live in London, or commutable distances from London in the south-east and the east of England – with another 9% in the south-west.

A mere 4.6% live in the north-west of England where I live, and only 14% in all three north of England regions together. Scotland does slightly less badly, pro rata, with 9%, but the east and west Midlands have just 6.3% between them.

If we want to bridge the north-south divide we might start with more regional balance in the upper house (preferably by election). Some of us try to make sure the needs of the north are heard, but more members will help, wherever it might meet in future.
Tony Greaves
Liberal Democrat, House of Lords

• The current floated suggestions are candyfloss. We need something substantial. Why not an assembly for England? Base it in Birmingham. Then have a much-reduced national parliament remaining in London. Have the Lords limited to an elected 100. And while we’re at it, why not a major base for the monarch in Manchester, replacing Buckingham Palace?
Colin Hulley
Buxton, Derbyshire

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