Why is twice as much being spent on refurbishing Westminster than on fighting Covid-19 in Wales?
Hywel Williams, Plaid Cymru MP for Arfon
This week Plaid Cymru submitted its thoughts to yet another review on the so-called ‘restoration and renewal’ of Westminster. In truth you don’t need 750 words to make the argument, the shocking stats are enough.
The cost of restoring the Palace of Westminster is estimated by now at over £5 billion. In 2018, the UK Parliament voted through a restoration plan for a temporary chamber for the Commons in another part of the parliamentary estate. The Lords would move temporarily to a conference centre opposite Westminster Abbey. That was going to cost a mere £4 billion.
Back then we warned that spending a mind-boggling fortune on restoring Westminster whilst public services were being slashed was not on. Now that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic and the political and economic prospects have nosedived even further, those responsible for the project are reviewing their plans.
Every crisis is an opportunity as they say. Well, this crisis gives the UK Government the chance to do the right thing.
Long before 2018, when he was an MP, Adam Price put down a motion calling for the Westminster Parliament to be moved to a brownfield site, and for the Palace of Westminster to be turned fully into a tourist attraction. My name was second on the motion.
At the time, any of the wise persons in London who happened to notice dismissed the idea as a provocation by a clever nationalist. But the argument was strong and remains so. That is if you subscribe to the idea of a unitary British state – the ‘fabulous four’ as Mr Johnson now puts it.
So why not a parliament in Birmingham or Manchester rather than pouring even more money into Westminster? Well, obviously, the wise persons in London aren’t going to put up with that are they!
But to put the cost of £5bn into context, the extra funding for the Welsh Government to deal with the unprecedented public health and economic Covid crisis has been around £2.8 billion so far. At the same time, the Tories in Wales refuse even to discuss increasing the number of Senedd members, despite all the evidence that it would strengthen the Senedd’s capacity.
More Senedd Members! More scrutiny and legislative competence! For heaven’s sake, at around £12m per year, that would obviously cost far too much!
One thing has become clear in the past few months. We should not, and indeed cannot, go back to the old status quo – public money and political attention being concentrated in one over-heated corner of the British Isles.
Even the British nationalists can’t continue to just ignore the UK’s deep inequalities. Inequalities which will only be made worse by the economic effects of the pandemic. Across Wales, we’re already seeing devastating job losses and the threat of more to come. What we need is Welsh political control of a huge investment programme into our infrastructure and economic packages of support for those industries, like tourism, which will take longer to recover from the pandemic.
But to get back to the subject. The reality is that the Palace of Westminster is quite literally falling down. The road outside the Plaid offices had to be closed a while ago as a piece of masonry the size of an armchair fell off the frontage – right above the entrance. At the very least, the staff at Westminster and the visiting public deserve better (I make no claims for MPs).
We’ve heard ‘build back better’ parroted endlessly recently. So, if we are stuck with Westminster for about ten years from 2021 (whilst we establish our independence) why not take the opportunity to live up to some of that rhetoric.
A Parliament which is accessible to all. Which enables digital voting and has better facilities for all users. One which is set up for legislating, not for pantomime politics. And (here’s a shocker) a Parliament which has in-built simultaneous translation facilities so that our elected members and staff can use Welsh as they do in the Senedd.
The Westminster establishment has delivered one of the most unequal states in the world. Its insular and backwards-looking politics have left Wales with some of the poorest regions in Europe and a third of our children living in poverty, whilst the wealth of Inner London continues to grow.
If this is really the kind of institution that the British Government believes public money should be spent on preserving, then it is little wonder that support for Welsh independence is growing.
It is now time for Westminster’s out of touch politics to be relegated to history. I believe a creative but temporary solution to the obvious ills for the next ten years would be cheaper and as effective.