If it ain’t fixed, don’t break it...
Parliament and the BBC: two great institutions in two great buildings, yet all are under threat. Intellectual attacks are being aimed at the organisations but their premises could suffer too, and that’s on top of existing problems at both. There is merit in some of the challenges and some change is needed in response, though as ever it’s about how far you go and how fast as well as what might be left behind.
The candidly adversarial arrangement of the government and opposition benches within the Palace of Westminster and especially the Commons has long been criticised; the one set faces the other, infamously a sword’s length apart, with the Speaker as peacemaker in the middle. The numbers of elected members in the Commons and appointed peers in the Lords has been growing, prompting concerns about representation and balance, although the former is now fixed, options for replacement of the entire upper house have been set out and constituency boundaries are under review.
The fabric of the Palace, finished in 1870 to designs by Charles Barry, Augustus Pugin and Edward Barry, is “falling apart faster than it can be fixed” as the Parliamentary Works website bluntly puts it. The roof aside (refurbishment of which is almost finished, comfortingly), scoping what needs doing with the stonework, windows, services and pretty much every other aspect of a building that, the same site helpfully tells us, is the size of 16 football pitches with 1,100 rooms, 100 staircases, three miles of passageways, four floors and 65 different levels is still under way. If, how, where and when to relocate one or both chambers to facilitate the remaining repair and restoration that is necessary is also matter of debate, with one scheme already abandoned. Into this mix a Guy Fawkes-like grenade was thrown the other week by Lord Adonis, who suggested the Palace be transformed into "one of the most phenomenal tourist attractions in the world" as part of the Victoria & Albert Museum; Parliament proper would move to Birmingham or Manchester, he says.
Well, I can’t see that happening. It isn’t just Parliament but almost the entire machinery of government that is located in London, from the main departments of state to the head of state and from the prime minister’s residence to Westminster Abbey. Tradition aside parliaments tend to shift city only after secession, dissolution or war, and not many tourists will enjoy turning up in SW1 only to be told they need to take a long train journey north. Actually you’d probably have to move the V&A into Parliament rather than just ask them to look after it – what else would you fill those 1,100 rooms with? The restoration would still need to happen too, though thankfully recent webinars about the superb effort expended on the Elizabeth Tower show what is possible. No, I think it best to bite the proverbial and get on as fast as possible, decanting to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre or elsewhere as needed but coming back thereafter. I’ve visited the cosier, circular parliaments common on the continent and think something similar could indeed be tried here as part of the works, repurposing the existing chambers’ fittings as needed. The UK Supreme Court over the road – a town hall turned into a courthouse, twice – shows how this could be done and given the Commons was simplified when rebuilt after Blitz damage, there is a precedent even within the House. Whilst the entire complex should not become a museum, much-improved public access should be a quid pro quo for the expenditure.
Over in W1, the BBC has been attracting condemnation for a couple of decades now as problem after problem – most of its own making (or at least worsening) – has emerged. From Andrew Gilligan and Jimmy Savile to fake phone-ins, talent pay and bias, its relevance, cost and funding model have also been criticised. This is despite the BBC remaining the nation’s most trusted broadcaster, to which many have turned during the pandemic or to navigate the flurry of fake news from across Europe and across the Atlantic. It is still the default home of national events that all want to see and hear.
The BBC’s building is essentially brand new, G. Val Myer’s Broadcasting House of 1932 having been refurbished and massively extended in 2013 above a vast double-height basement news room meant to be visible from the street. That very process, however, has left its own set of issues caused by overreach and poor management. Architects MacCormac Jamieson Prichard were removed after apparently refusing to ‘value engineer’ their original concept (the practice’s staff are still unable to discuss the matter). Sheppard Robson took over and delivered that reduced vision but costs rose well above budget to around £1bn anyway and final completion was four years late. Aesthetically it is doubtful many would agree a new building of “real architectural merit” has been produced and there were technology failures, including the robot cameras at the start and the lifts just the other day. The public access built into the design, supposed to increase transparency, has been quietly discontinued and even the piazza between the old and new buildings is not the “destination” envisaged.
The BBC’s programmes were a formative part of my youth, whether Blue Peter, Grange Hill or Tomorrow’s World; as an adult it is still my default brand for general topics; and at that national level the corporation is not simply trusted but continues to be intimately linked to British identity. But it is also bloated, defensive and impenetrable, and like all large public bodies often appears to exist to serve itself rather than its users. I’m undecided on the funding but it’s clear the BBC can and should slim down. So, on the sensible principle that it should not copy what the commercial sector can easily provide, its ten national radio networks should be reduced to a single speech-based outlet with perhaps a second available when needed; local coverage can be subsumed within fewer, regional stations without too much loss of granularity. Two television channels are enough for first-run and some live content when the current programming is examined in any detail, and a much-reduced list of sporting events would be accommodated across all of these plus the BBC’s website. That in itself requires significant design and tonal shifts to match the quality of many rivals’ online presence, particular its news pages. Opening itself up in a wide range of areas – answering evidenced complaints with evidenced responses, welcoming suggestions rather than obstructing their submission, improving access to (and, yes, monetising if needed) its archives, consulting on the future and throwing the doors of its building wide once more – would close obvious gaps.