Political geography

Lord Norton


Pictures of Parliament are normally confined to the Palace of Westminster.  However, the parliamentary estate stretches well beyond the Palace to the north and to the south-west.  Just as the Palace shapes behaviour, so too does the way the estate is configured.  The building of Portcullis House – modern, with a floor of dedicated committee rooms and a large social space – has shifted some of the focus from the Palace.   It is easily reached from the Palace.

However, the position of Norman Shaw South and North (the old Scotland Yard) is different.  Portcullis House stands between them and the Palace.  To reach Norman Shaw North one has to go through Portcullis House to Norman Shaw South and then through that building to Norman Shaw North.   Norman Shaw North and 7 Millbank constitute the two outposts of the estate.  A map shows the extent to which they are outliers. 

I was visiting Norman Shaw North yesterday.  It is the part of the estate furthest from the Lords end of the Palace.  As soon as I arrived, I was told there was a division in the Lords!  Fortunately, I made it within the eight-minute limit.  However, many peers are reluctant to venture to Portcullis House, let alone beyond it, in case there is a division and they don’t see a screen in time. 

It is not only peers’ behaviour that is affected.  Norman Shaw North does not have the attractions of Portcullis House.  It resembles Hull: it is not somewhere you visit on your way to anywhere.   There is no scope for social interaction in the way that there is in Portcullis House.  I referred to it as the parliamentary equivalent of Siberia.  The MP I was visiting said that was exactly how he described it. 

Offices in 1 Parliament Street and Portcullis House are attractive and well appointed, so Members are generally happy to be there.  Otherwise, the real attaction is being in the Palace itself.  MPs and peers resist moving out of offices in the Palace – even if the carrot is a larger or more modern office – and some in outlying buildings are very keen (some might say desperate) to get a toehold in the Palace.  In the Palace, you are close to the action and everything is within moderately reasonable reach.  The building itself has a magnetic effect.  How we behave is shaped in part by the need to exploit space within the vicinity.   Portcullis House is purpose built.   Otherwise, we have had to make do and adapt existing  buildings.

10 comments for “Political geography

  1. 30/06/2009 at 9:57 pm

    This isn’t just an issue for those who work at Westminster. Any organisation with large premises is the same. I have an office where it’s a several-minutes walk to where all the action happens, and where no-one needs to walk past on the way to anywhere!

    If your map is to scale, then for MPs at least, Norman Shaw North is only about as far away as the far end of the Palace. Of course, I realise the Lords’ chamber is down the far end, so you have the maximum distance to walk for your division.

  2. lordnorton
    01/07/2009 at 7:29 am

    Jonathan: Indeed. As you say, it is the same for any organisation with large premises. The same applies to university campuses. When the Palace of Westminster was built, it was more than adequate in size for its purpose. Some staff not only had accommodation within the Palace but rather spacious accommodation. The building ceased some time ago to be able to cope with the demand for more office space. Having to expand in an area where there is not much space has meant utlising surrounding buildings, with the consequences I mention. An organisation with multiple buildings, or split sites, is in the same position. Mind you, most organisations don’t have sudden gatherings (votes) requiring people to rush to one point within eight minutes!

  3. Croft
    01/07/2009 at 8:17 am

    Well of course there are a number of potential solutions. No doubt further building acquisition while ideal due to the market price at the moment would be political suicide. How tight is the 8 minute limit – as there is obviously no logical reason why it could not be 10 minutes – parliamentary business is not so packed it could cause a crisis.

    The other thought is how many are housed in Norman Shaw South and North? Enough that proposed reductions in MPs we allow them to cease to be used?

  4. Matt Korris
    01/07/2009 at 1:35 pm

    For those who are particularly interested in the accomodation issues around the Parliamentary Estate, you might enjoy the House of Commons Administration Committee’s 2006 report on the subject, which includes some interesting facts and figures. There are also a couple of short follow-ups linked on this page.

    Matt Korris
    Hansard Society

    • Croft
      02/07/2009 at 4:59 pm

      I’m a bit cautious to publically admitting to ‘enjoying’ the Commons Administration Committee’s 2006 report 😉 but thanks for the link. The answer to my question seems to be ~150 members in NS N/S which is too many for the Tory 50 MP reduction but well within the proposals talked around having ~500 MPs.

      From the report:

      Members’ staff are also based in these five buildings, usually but not always in the same
      as the Member for whom they work

      That really doesn’t seem ideal!

      • Matt Korris
        03/07/2009 at 10:02 am


        I quite agree, though it depends upon whose idea of ‘ideal’ you are talking about. Some researchers I knew who had offices separate from the MP they worked for very much appreciated having a bit of distance and personal space!

        Matt Korris
        Hansard Society

  5. lordnorton
    04/07/2009 at 7:15 pm

    Croft: The 8-minute limit is very tight. The moment the eight minutes since the divison was called are reached, the doors to the chamber are locked. Even if you are within a few feet of the doors, that is no use. They are shut in your face.

    There is no reason why the time limit cannot be extended and in the past it has been. However, as far as I am aware, there have not been many complaints that peers have not been able to reach the chamber within the time allowed. Mind you, this could be because they avoid straying as far as Portcullis House – or Norman Shaw North or South – if there is the prospect of a division!

    • Croft
      05/07/2009 at 1:50 pm

      Is there political distribution of office space. At times it seems like there is a pattern (Cameron & Co in NS/S) as to who is where then in others it appears purely random?

      • Matt Korris
        06/07/2009 at 11:55 am

        Office space is divided up by the Accomodation Whips (one of the high-ranking members of the whips office) from the various parties. This means that senior MPs and loyal ones tend to receive better offices than juniors and rebels. The whips also try to keep MPs of the same party together.

        The end result is there are some patterns to office distribution. For example, in Portcullis House, floor 3 is Liberal Democrat, floor 4 is Conservative and floor 5 is Labour. Last time I looked, the six penthouse offices in Portcullis House were split between former Labour ministers, and Tory and Lib Dem frontbenchers.

  6. lordnorton
    10/07/2009 at 11:42 am

    Croft: To add to what Matt Korris says, it is similar but not identical in the Lords. The whips are responsible for allocating offices, though the pressure on space, and seeking to make use of all available space, means that there is nothing quite so neat as in the Commons. I am on a corridor where there are Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat offices, as well as the Law Lords. Rooms, though, are allocated on a party basis. We don’t have individual offices, so you will have a number of Conservative peers in one office, a number of Labour peers in another, and so on. The Law Lords are unusual in that they, like senior officers and ministers, get their own individual offices.

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