UK Supreme Court: an empty shell?

The government has postponed its big idea for constitutional reform - because it can't find the right building to put it in.

Josie Appleton

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The government’s grand plans for constitutional reform have stalled because it cannot find a suitable building.

The idea was to create a modern, independent judiciary – abolishing the post of Lord Chancellor, and replacing the House of Lords as the highest court in the land with a new Supreme Court. But the separation of powers may have to wait for up to 10 years, until there is somewhere to put them.

The Law Lords had demanded a £50million purpose-built complex to house the Supreme Court (1). Lord Falconer, the current Lord Chancellor who is overseeing the reforms, reportedly wanted to put the court in the Middlesex Guildhall in Parliament Square. But the government wasn’t prepared to put up £50million, and the Law Lords claimed that Middlesex Guildhall’s criminal court layout just wouldn’t do. Lord Falconer will now amend the Constitutional Reform Bill to say that the new court will not be established until a building is ready (2).

This fiasco exposes a hole in the government’s plans for constitutional reform. The hashed-together proposals were announced in June 2003, reportedly after only a few days’ serious discussion between prime minister Tony Blair and his close advisers. The government hadn’t thought through the most basic implications of its proposed reforms: there was no timetable or guidelines for setting up the new Supreme Court, and plans were chopped and changed in the days after the announcement.

The reforms were primarily an exercise in spin, to create the image of a forward-looking government casting off staid old traditions. There was no political vision behind the plans, and no political muscle to drive them through. It would therefore be appropriate if the Constitutional Reform Bill is passed with the qualifying clause that a building has to be found first – the government’s inability to find suitable bricks and mortar chimes with the insubstantial nature of its proposals. New Labour is good at knocking down old institutions, but not so good at constructing new ones.

The Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly have had similar problems getting their buildings up. The costs of the Holyrood building for Scotland mushroomed from £40million to £400million; the resulting controversy has dominated Scottish politics for the past few years. Plans for the Welsh assembly building were announced in 1998 for completion in 2001 – after years of political wrangling, during which the architects were sacked and then reinstated, it is now expected that the building will be finished in 2005 at almost five times the original estimated cost (3).

Just as with the Supreme Court, it is these institutions’ flimsy political foundations that make it difficult to sort out the buildings. According to Penny Lewis, editor of the Scottish architecture magazine Prospect, the Scottish parliament ‘can’t really come to a consensus about what it is. There is no certainty or sense of decisiveness about what the institution is’. As a result of this political incoherence, ‘project managers seemed incapable of imposing normal discipline’, and conflicting opinions and agendas were given free rein. Nobody could keep a firm hand on the project, which degenerated into backbiting as politicians and architects blamed each other for the mess.

In the absence of political mission there is an obsession with the buildings themselves, in the hope that they might provide institutions with the coherence that they lack in their own terms. The Law Lords are reportedly keen on a snazzy new complex as an ‘expensive statement’, signalling the profile and importance of the Supreme Court. When the political debate and organisations inside these buildings aren’t up to much, there is an obsession with the shell – an idea that the structure itself can create a mission.

And when the building fails to live up to these unrealistic expectations, institutions are liable to blame the building for all their problems. One Scottish minister recently said that the main problem with the parliament was Holyrood – implying that if only they had decent site managers things would have been okay.

Lord Falconer’s favoured plan of installing the Supreme Court in Middlesex Guildhall is reportedly a reaction to Holyrood, an idea that a big building project will blight the new court. One source close to the Department for Constitutional Affairs told Scotland on Sunday: ‘This government isn’t about spending public money unnecessarily, and when you hear what we are being told about the Holyrood experience, you can understand why we aren’t going to saddle ourselves with the possibility of a white elephant.’ (4) (As former minister for the Millennium Dome, Lord Falconer is particularly averse to white elephants.)

The fact that Lord Falconer is plumping for the Gothic-style Middlesex Guildhall to house the new Supreme Court signals a political step-down. While the constitutional reforms were announced to the fanfare of modernisation, it seems that the government now wants to cut its losses and get the thing up with as little hassle as possible. Having attempted to cast off tradition, government reformers are seeking refuge in the shell of the past. A spokesperson for the Department for Constitutional Affairs told me that officials are ‘looking at a number of different options. We’re not saying that Middlesex Guildhall is the only option, but we’re not saying that we’ve ruled it out’.

While uncertainty remains over where to house the Supreme Court, plans for constitutional reform will remain on hold. But the root of the problem lies in political architecture – in the insubstantial nature of the government’s proposed new institutions – rather than in a lack of bricks and mortar.

Read on:

Spinning the constitution, by Josie Appleton

(1) ‘”Holyrood experience’ puts paid to new Supreme Court building’, Scotland on Sunday, 7 March 2004

(2) ‘Supreme court plan is put on ice for ten years’, The Times, 17 May 2004

(3) New Welsh parliament set to go ahead, 1 July 2003

(4) ‘”Holyrood experience’ puts paid to new Supreme Court building’, Scotland on Sunday, 7 March 2004

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