Now is the time to modernise and reform our parliament

The Green Party leader outlines a few simple steps to make parliament a more effective – and less ar

Adopting electronic voting or introducing an explanatory paragraph to explain the purpose of specific amendments to a bill probably don't sound like revolutionary stuff. They're not exactly up there with the Great Reform Acts. But even such modest changes could take us a step closer to a more efficient and accessible parliament that, if not yet fit for purpose, is at least less unfit.

Arriving at Westminster for the first time is a strange experience. The first thing I was shown was not my office – that took at least a month to be allocated – but the pink ribbon where I was to hang up my sword. The antiquated language that parliamentarians are still expected to use in the Chamber, the late-night voting and the unpredictability of the daily agenda feel pretty anachronistic and, at times, obstructive.

Westminster traditionalists cling on to these old-fashioned procedures, making valiant claims about defending our heritage. But the fact is, most people believe parliament to be remote, unaccountable and incomprehensible. I'm hardly the first parliamentarian to recognise that something needs to change.

As peers dust themselves down after several weeks of bitter conflict and sleepless nights over changes to constituency boundaries and the AV referendum, and as MPs continue to pay the price of the expenses scandal, it is unsurprising that many are again asking how we can change our political system for the better.

In my well-attended Backbench Business debate today, MPs had the opportunity to put forward their views on the hugely inefficient processes that shape our parliament – and offer their own ideas about how we can drag Westminster into the 21st century. In my report, The Case for Parliamentary Reform, published in November, I outlined a number of proposals for first steps towards change.

First, an electronic voting system would make far better use of MPs' time. The voting system we currently use is bizarre and time-consuming. Just queuing up to vote accounts for around £30,000 of the total amount spent on all MPs' salaries in one week. In the last parliament there were over 1,200 votes. As it takes about 15 minutes per vote, that means an MP with an 85 per cent voting record would have spent over 250 hours queuing to vote – hardly the most effective use of time and money.

Hand-held electronic devices would help speed up the process. Security options could be used to make sure they were operated only by the member; you could also ensure the device was operable only within the Chamber or voting lobbies – as opposed to a pub nearby – and therefore maintain the opportunity for people to meet ministers.

Furthermore, if all votes were held at one time of the day, this would remove the need to rush backwards and forwards between offices in far-flung corners of the estate. On most sitting days, there is at least one vote and there can be four, five or more votes in a day. Time spent running to and fro and slowly filing through the "Aye" and "No" lobbies could be spent doing more useful things – like responding to constituents or scrutinising legislation.

I'd also like to see measures to prevent the "talking out" of private member's bills. Thanks to the absence of limits on speaking time, individuals are free to ramble on for hours and obstruct the progress of legislation.

An end to late-night sittings would also make working hours more family friendly for both MPs and their staff.

And a systematic overhaul of parliamentary language would help demystify the parliamentary processes. I'd like to see a far greater use of plain English – no more of the "Honourable Gentleman" this and the "Noble Baroness" that. Similarly, I'd make it compulsory to add an explanatory paragraph to explain the purpose of specific amendments to a bill, so that MPs and the public know what they're voting on.

While such reforms may seem modest, they are not unopposed. I have been regaled on many occasions about precisely why MPs should be allowed to drone on for hours, talking out legislation, and why Westminster should remain just as it is.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the Parliament Act of 1911. Fast-forward exactly 100 years, and while it's clear that progress has been made, there's still a long way to go. As the political process struggles to achieve legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of voters, the task of ushering in a more effective and user-friendly parliament feels more urgent than ever.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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