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Parliament Square

Volume 703: debated on Monday 14 July 2008

asked the Chairman of Committees whether he will make representations to the World Squares for All Steering Group on the proposal to close only the road on the south side of Parliament Square and not that on the east side.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the context of this dinner-hour debate has been changed by the announcement by the Mayor of London last week that he was calling in the plans for Parliament Square. Therefore, whereas I wished to argue that we should be thinking about closing two sides of Parliament Square rather than one, making the best of Parliament Square as a world square and as a world heritage site, I fear that we are now having to argue for closing off even one side of the square.

I start by declaring an interest. I grew up partly on the other side of the square. I sang in the choir in the Abbey for four years and as a boy I used to watch the opening of Parliament every year from the roof of Henry VII’s Lady Chapel. So Old Palace Yard is a very familiar place, and in those days there was very little traffic through it. It was a democratic open space, a place for ceremony before the London traffic overtook it. I had not, I have to say, realised that it was a world heritage site until I read the Department for Communities and Local Government consultation document some months ago on the management of world heritage sites. As noble Lords may know, Saltaire is also a world heritage site. I noticed that, in 1987, Westminster Abbey, St Margaret's Church, the Jewel Tower and the Palace of Westminster together were nominated as an inclusive whole as a world heritage site. I mark as an “inclusive whole” because, as the UNESCO advisory report put it:

“Westminster Abbey … is inseparable from the parliamentary history of the Kingdom”.

It concluded that the site therefore needed to bring in the whole of the history of the development of parliamentary monarchy by bringing in the Abbey in which the Commons first met. The Commons indeed met in the Chapter House and then in the Refectory until, in 1547, after the dissolution of the monasteries, they were able to move across the road and occupy St Stephen’s Chapel. Old Palace Yard was the coronation route and the burial route for kings and queens. It is still, of course, the judges’ route, and as the Supreme Court, which started in Westminster Hall, moves to the other side of Parliament Square, the historical unity will be, in a sense, extended. The Palace was, after all, built alongside the Abbey by the Norman kings to legitimise their link with Edward the Confessor. The law courts started over here. So this is, as Tristram Hunt put it in the Guardian the other week, a great,

“public realm, crying out for a sophisticated and challenging constitutional narrative about the nature and multiple meaning of Britishness”.

It is a great democratic space, a focus for citizenship, identity and memory. Some have even suggested that as Parliament Square is redeveloped it might be appropriate to move the Cenotaph, currently also a traffic island, into Parliament Square so it would become the place where national ceremonies take place, linking Parliament, the monarchy, Whitehall and the rest.

The world squares proposal was to return the city as a whole to pedestrians from the dominance of cars and trucks. I am very sorry that the new Mayor of London appears to be cooling so much on this. We have to ask ourselves: who comes first, the motorist or the citizen? The criteria for discussing whether we close off one, two or no sides of the square has to revolve around three things: first, traffic; secondly, security; and then the whole nexus of heritage, ceremony, the state and the democratic citizenship, which we all claim to love.

Traffic is of course the most difficult issue. When I wrote an article on this in the House magazine, the noble Lord, Lord Walker, replied on behalf of the Westminster residents’ action group, which, as he pointed out, brought together those living on the other side of the Palace of Westminster—Great Peter Street, Smith Square and the like. They had been much inconvenienced by the temporary closure of Old Palace Yard last summer. The traffic going down Great Smith Street and into Great Peter Street had been a tremendous problem and they wanted traffic to flow freely again.

Transport for London has estimated that closing the south side would,

“significantly reduce traffic on the east side of the square”—

that is, the area between the Abbey and Parliament itself. The noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, it is said, intervened at an early stage of discussions about redesigning Parliament Square to insist that the Prime Minister should have ample space to drive at some speed into New Palace Yard. I recall that the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, asked how convenient it would be for mothers-in-law to get out of their cars outside St Margaret’s, when I asked a Question about this. One can deal with all these things and still design a system in which people will drive through the Palace of Westminster from New Palace Yard to Black Rod’s gate, and in which nevertheless we will restore this wonderful public space.

Others will say, “Yes, but where will Peers park their cars?”. I have checked that. I am told that Abingdon Road car park is half empty most of the time. We could provide some space for disabled Members inside the Palace itself. Others will say, as someone in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform said to me at lunchtime, “After Trafalgar Square I do not want anything else like this. It has been a disaster for motorists”. But Trafalgar Square has also been a wonderful experience for tourists, citizens, cyclists and all those who love London. Over time, traffic would disperse along the Albert Embankment as well as Great Smith Street, and we ought to be trying to reduce traffic around London. In particular, I find the heavy trucks which pass through Old Palace Yard quite astounding, and they are also a potential security hazard.

I want to flag security as my second issue. It is very clear that, from the security angle, closure of both sides of the square has tremendous advantages, not only in terms of the greater security of the Palace but also the possibility of removing those unsightly barriers which, unavoidably, are temporary because they have to be removed for ceremonies. So long as we have traffic flowing through, we are going to have great metal barriers there for 10 months of the year, being lifted up and down and going in and out all the time. It is not a way to set off the middle of a world heritage site.

On reading the consultation document, I noted that all world heritage sites are now supposed to have site management plans looking at how to improve the area as a whole. That seems to have been left entirely outside the current argument.

I end by focusing again on heritage, great occasions, democratic gatherings, Parliament in context and on this area as, in a sense, the heart of the nation, the heart of our democratic tradition and the heart of our development of Parliament and parliamentary monarchical democracy. That is the real issue at stake. Or is Conservative London and the Conservative City of London, which has opposed the proposals all the way through, to be a motorists’ London only?

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, on a fascinating and interesting introduction to a very serious problem. He has done a lot of research on this and has put it in the context of Parliament Square as a world heritage site.

About 10 years ago many of us who were here were shown plans of the world heritage site stretching from Parliament Square to Trafalgar Square. We were told that Trafalgar Square was the first part of it. Trafalgar Square was then a mass of gyratory traffic. Getting across from the outside to the middle, or even getting across the side road, was extremely difficult. Now that they have stopped traffic flowing beside the National Gallery and, let us say, tamed it in the other places with good traffic-light sequencing, it is a very nice place to go to. I cycle across it many days. It is quite safe there, and the traffic is less obtrusive than it was. However, the people in there are having a wonderful time with open-air opera screens, concerts and other things. It is a joy to walk through it; but no more of a joy than most central areas of other major capital cities which have had a bit of vision to complete this.

We then look down to this end of Whitehall and see the mess; it is a mess. We have had quite a lot of rain recently. I do not know whether any of your Lordships have tried to walk from our entrance up towards Parliament Square, but the drain is always blocked at the security point, and drivers of cars and trucks who do not like us much try to spray us with 20 feet of water as we walk by. You see hordes of tourists coming along, crammed on to the pavement, and I wonder what they are thinking. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, this is the centre of our heritage, and you get showered from top to bottom when a car goes by because nobody can even be bothered to clean out the drains. I shall come back to the other problem of security.

The present square is a disgrace to London as a world heritage site. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, the only solution must be to remove most of the traffic from the south and east sides so that pedestrians are free to roam. I would go one step further, and suggest that MPs can go into their present entrance quite easily, while most of us could come in from the Embankment end—that would not be much more difficult; it would be all right. Then we would have a wonderful pedestrianised area between here, the Commons and the centre of Parliament Square and Westminster Abbey, rightly set out as a showcase of London.

I do not see it as a traffic problem. I know that there was a problem last summer when we were replacing the barriers to make them slightly less dangerous. There is a problem in Great Smith Street, and it is quite reasonable for the residents to be concerned, but most of the heavy traffic, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, comes from the embankment and goes down the Albert Embankment. It would not take much to suggest that they went across Westminster Bridge and came back over Lambeth Bridge. There is not much residential property between Lambeth Bridge and Westminster Bridge on the south side by the back of St Thomas’s Hospital. If the route was signposted properly and Great Smith Street was confined to buses and light vehicles, the effects on the residents would not be that great.

The usual theory in London is that a traffic jam occurs for some reason, whether it be the digging of roads, which is currently happening everywhere, the permanent changes in Trafalgar Square or whatever. However, traffic finds another way around. If drivers perceive that they cannot get through Westminster because it has been blocked off, most will find another way around because they do not like sitting in a traffic jam. Even in Whitehall, mess though it is, when the traffic jam comes back to the Cenotaph, people usually try to turn right and go a different way. That is how traffic works.

There is a way around which would make it perfectly acceptable for the residents of Great Smith Street, Horseferry Road and other places around there. Buses need to go there, but they go up that road anyway. Cars could as well. The other thing they would need to do is re-sequence the traffic lights slightly. It is not a problem. It is important that this is done for the sake of the centre of Britain and everything else.

There is also a security problem. These big barriers are highly unsightly. I am told that they are placed where they are because the protection of the building goes up at the rate of the cube of the distance. Clearly the best thing would be to not have them there at all, and not to have any vehicles there so that there would be no need for security against them. That would kill two birds with one stone, and make the place look much better. I hope that the opportunity will be taken to remove some of the barriers and make more of Old Palace Yard available to the public.

I warned the Chairman of Committees that I would briefly raise the idea that when those black temporary security buildings in Old Palace Yard are finally removed it would be nice to have a few square feet for visitors who come by bike, possibly as a small contribution to encouraging people to cycle here. Giving them somewhere to chain up a bike could not really be seen as a security risk; perhaps some small corner of a foreign field might be available for bikes in the future.

My concern is who is in charge. The mayor may say that he is, but we have been hearing for the past five years that Westminster City Council has been blocking the project. Well, they both come from the same party, so maybe they will agree; maybe the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, will be able to tell us that in his winding-up speech, and that the mayor is really very keen to see this and would like the whole of Parliament Square to be closed. Or he may not.

Parliament is also involved. Old Palace Yard is part of our Estate, and we spent £2 million putting down those nice paving slabs so that they could then be ripped up by heavy lorries going by. There is a security consideration. I hope that the Chairman of Committees will be able not only to respond to some of my and other noble Lords’ comments, but to tell us who is in charge, what the process for going forward is, and how we can put a bit of pressure on people to get moving.

My Lords, I suppose that I have always been somewhere on the spectrum between ashamed, embarrassed and uncomfortable about what London presents to our visitors when they visit the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey. The message that visitors are tolerated rather than welcomed is compounded by the new notices that have appeared— although many are now on the pavement rather than attached to railings—issuing warnings about trespass and criminal offences. This is a pity, because progress was being made towards welcoming visitors to this building.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Wallace for raising the issue of the area outside the building. There are so many Londoners who visit this part of London, as well as people from the rest of the UK and overseas; we are aware of the enormous value of tourism to London and the UK economy. There cannot be many visitors to London who do not visit this part of SW1. I know that many of us who work here often find it a struggle to get around, and I confess that I do not always feel wholly tolerant, but that is partly because so many people in large, impenetrable groups—with a wish to photograph each other against this splendid setting and no wish at all to move very fast—are forced into a narrow area of pavement.

Parliament Square serves little function other than as a traffic island, even if its statues and occasional flagpoles make it a rather handsome one. The other world square, Trafalgar, has been improved almost literally out of all recognition. When Ken Livingstone was Mayor of London, he was happy to take the credit for that, though in truth it was not his scheme at its inception. Closing the north side to vehicles not only joins the square and the National Gallery, making it easy to cross the square, it attracts pedestrians to it, as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said. I am one of those and I very much appreciate that experience. The square is a world square for all: the casual pedestrian as much as the performers and audiences who now give it an extra dimension. The World Squares for All group’s study of Parliament Square contained comments which could apply equally to Trafalgar Square. It mentioned the frustrated links between key spaces, and what sums up for me the criteria for Parliament Square; namely, the need for a dignified and accessible setting for a world heritage site.

When my noble friend asked me whether I would speak about the closing of two sides of Parliament Square, I asked him in turn whether that would lead to an increase in traffic along Great Smith Street. I thought that I should add my voice to the calls to investigate the knock-on effects and to carry out origin and destination studies on routes on both sides of the river, as other noble Lords said. I also chided myself that my first reaction was to ask where cars would go. I drive far too often. However, early last week I realised that—given the politics of the situation, including the fact that this is the home patch of the mayor’s adviser on planning matters—this ambitious plan might remain just that rather than be likely to succeed. Then I heard about Mayor Johnson’s plans, or rather his rowing back from plans. In an article on the square by Building Design, the mayor, when asked about Design for London’s 100 Public Spaces project, is quoted as saying:

“The butterflies and the trees and architects’ plans—I love all that, and I think that people will, you know, generally like them very much.

There are some differences about some of the proposals currently on the drawing board and I don’t want to get dragged into a discussion … because a lot of them are under review now.

But I’m strongly attracted to things which give people a sense of ownership over public space, particularly cyclists”.

No doubt there are many reasons why Mayor Johnson rowed back from the proposals, one of which is money. I have no doubt that the new mayor will look to gain savings wherever he can in his first budget. As my noble friend said, the Conservative Party has deliberately positioned itself as the motorist’s friend. Further, the taxi driver lobby conducted a most impressive campaign in support of Mr Johnson. The vehemence of its reaction to changes at Trafalgar Square would certainly have given any mayor pause. From 2000 onwards that lobby campaigned vigorously against the proposals of Mayor Livingstone. I often found that when taking a taxi between this building and City Hall I needed to concentrate intensely on my blackberry or my mobile phone to avoid conversation.

I am not suggesting that decisions about Parliament Square should not be London decisions; they should be. This debate is not about abandoning devolution because we may disagree with the London government on one matter. However, we are parliamentarians. We work here, most of us live here, and we have London’s interests at heart. Therefore, we are entitled to comment. My comment is, “Be bold, Boris. Raise your sights to fulfil your stewardship of this world city”.

My Lords, it is difficult to better the description that my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire, gave of the buildings that comprise the Westminster estate and of the palace and St Margaret’s. It seems to me that anybody arriving here as a tourist or visitor from another country must be amazed at the way in which this unique and historic group of buildings is presented. Many tourists come here because Westminster and Westminster Abbey feature on their short list of destinations, but they get a pretty raw deal because they get a very poor view of what they ought to be able to see. They would be well served by a pedestrianisation, either in whole or in part, such as is proposed.

Visitors face difficulties getting into the square as they have to negotiate pedestrian crossings and avoid traffic and other pedestrians. The view south towards the river, Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster cannot be viewed in calm contemplation, as should be the case. One has a sense of urgency due to the need to avoid the problems I mentioned. The pedestrianisation that is suggested would also give a wonderful vista from Parliament Square towards Trafalgar Square, taking in the Cenotaph. I differ slightly from my noble friend in that, for practical and aesthetic reasons, I think that the Cenotaph is well situated in Whitehall. But there may be an argument for moving it, if we ever arrive at the point where decisions are made.

As today is 14 July, it may be appropriate to mention that the French are rather good at grands projets. They seem to have the political will to push things through. We are, to use a football analogy, rather good at set pieces such as royal lyings-in-state in Westminster Abbey, the Trooping of the Colour and the opening of Parliament, where everything is immaculately done—I can detect no fault in those ceremonial occasions—but we do not seem able to visualise grands projets. Other countries seem to find that much easier. Perhaps we are successful at set pieces because politicians are scarcely involved, or not at all.

It seems to me that the problem with the project we are discussing is that nobody stands to lose out except the motorist, the lorry driver and the bus driver, due to congestion. As my noble friend Lady Hamwee suggested, surely it is not beyond the wit of man to conduct studies and, one way or another, to master the problem of the traffic congestion. I know that we cannot do what Monsieur Delanoë is doing in France, because we do not have wide avenues down which to bus people in from parks on the other side of the river. That would be ideal irrespective of whether the plans for the square went ahead. We are rather constrained by lack of space. However, it seems that all those who have an interest in this project, including parliamentarians, Westminster Abbey, Westminster School, which nobody has mentioned, St Margaret’s and pedestrians—everybody except the motorist—would benefit from pedestrianisation, which would uprate this great collection of buildings.

We have this very disfiguring sequence of barriers in front of the palace. I am surprised that the road is considered to comprise the area of highest risk in terms of attack. If we closed off the southern side to traffic, that danger would certainly be diminished. But is there really a danger? It seems to me that if terrorists seriously planned to attack us, they would be much more likely to do so from the river side. If there is to be an explosion in this building, it seems much more likely to come from the smokers who are now gathered around my motorcycle, among other things. Smokers are gathered round motorcycles and cars in the centre of this building in a way that would not be allowed in any garage in Britain under local laws. Policemen have said to me that we are in Monty Python-land, but we are not; if an explosion takes place, it will wreak a lot of destruction. I know that Black Rod, much tried, is dealing with that as best he can and we can expect an improvement in the lot of the smokers, who, with the agreement of English Heritage, will finally have a sheltered space ere long.

The residents also will not worry if traffic is diminished. Great Smith Street was rather an experience last year; I admit that I ventured down there once or twice. Although I keep clear of the square on my bicycle—the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, is probably more intrepid than I am—I sneak away in side streets to make my way to the joys of the parks. St James’s Park is the closest, where we are not allowed to ride but we can push our bikes and enjoy the wonderful vistas. It is a wonderful area; I love London.

The Question pushes along and tries to get urgency into some political will; we need to get it to move on. I have great expectations of the mayor. He clearly has intelligence; we have heard so much about that. “Rowing back” was the expression used this evening. That seems appropriate for a mayor enjoying a honeymoon period—a not altogether untroubled one. I do not think that he has shown disapproval of the plans; he just wants to think about it. I am sure that he will fundamentally have the views that we all have. I hope that he returns in due course with the confidence that we expect him to gain as mayor and put some impetus behind them, and gets together with Westminster Council so that we can get a sensible plan for moving forward.

It is untenable that we stay like this. The bivouacs—the shanty town in the middle of Parliament Square—will continue as long as we do not have any great plans. Who knows? If they go on for long, the people there might all have children. I see a proliferation of the tents; I think that they are just for bikes at the moment, but they might well be for children if a decision about them is postponed for ever.

There is some urgency. The proposal would do us enormous good as a nation, do London good as a tourist destination, and make our lives and pedestrians’ lives better. Perhaps it would not make the motorists’ lives better, but I am sure that we can find a solution.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for introducing this short debate. It is an important issue. Noble Lords have argued for improvements in Parliament Square, and they may well be right. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, was right: as Mr Johnson was elected with a different manifesto from his predecessor, it would be odd if he did not review his predecessor’s decisions and talk to Westminster City Council for himself. I am not sure of the democratic credentials of the world squares group, but the primary stakeholders are Londoners, who elected Mr Johnson.

It is important to remember that the scheme is under review; it has not been shelved. No doubt the review will take into account the needs of Londoners in particular, of the nation in general, of tourists—all noble Lords have spoken about the needs of tourists; so far as they are concerned, the situation is unsatisfactory—of Parliament and those who work in the Parliamentary Estate, of the abbey, and of security. I do not propose to explore security in detail for obvious reasons.

Can the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees assure the House that its officials have suitable means to advise the mayor’s review team where we have a locus as a House? Is he absolutely confident that the review team and Westminster City Council will take into account, but not necessarily agree with, all that has been said tonight? Finally, I undertake to ensure that the mayor’s office is fully informed of our deliberations tonight.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, for raising the subject of world squares. I am also grateful to noble Lords who have contributed so knowledgeably to today’s debate. In the time available to me I propose to summarise the House’s position on the world squares proposals. However, noble Lords will appreciate that my responsibility for matters relating to Parliament Square is strictly limited, so I will not be in a position to respond to many of the points made. I am not the mayor, and most of the speeches that I heard this evening were directed at him.

As noble Lords will be aware, the World Squares for All study was begun in 1996 by a number of organisations that now form the World Squares for All steering group. The group appointed consultants to undertake the development of a master plan whose objective was to redefine the heart of London, specifically Trafalgar Square, Parliament Square and the Whitehall conservation area. The steering group is developing proposals which include pedestrianising the south side of Parliament Square and reducing traffic on its east side, as has been said. I understand that Transport for London is undertaking further traffic studies before the scheme advances, at the request of the mayor. The steering group will meet in September to review progress.

I should make it clear that the Parliament Square proposals did not originate within Parliament and Parliament is not the owner of the scheme. The proposals have been brought forward by the Greater London Authority and Transport for London and I do not claim to speak on behalf of either body; as I said, nor do I speak for the mayor. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, will accordingly recognise that my responsibility for the matter raised in his Question is distinctly limited.

That said, Parliament is an important consultee to the process; I reassure the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, on that account. The parliamentary director of estates attends the world squares steering group as a representative of the Parliamentary Estate. The director reports the developments of the steering group to committees of both Houses and feeds back the committees’ views. Noble Lords might find it helpful if I took a few moments to summarise some of the work undertaken by Lords committees in recent months.

In May, the Administration and Works Committee took on responsibility for reviewing the proposals and scrutinised the likely impact of the scheme upon access to Parliament. The committee raised a number of issues which it reported to the House Committee in June, and upon which it sought clarification from the mayor. Those include the precise traffic restrictions proposed, particularly with regard to vehicle access to and traffic direction on St Margaret Street, the basis for the forecast traffic reductions on St Margaret Street, and assurance on the maintenance of pedestrian access to St Margaret’s Church during ceremonial occasions. I look forward to the mayor’s response to those points.

I hope that noble Lords will also be interested to know, to respond directly to the thrust of the Question, that I raised with the mayor in my letter of 30 June the possibility for closure of Abingdon Street and St Margaret Street to all traffic except vehicles requiring access on behalf of parliamentarians and the emergency services. That would eradicate the major threat to the security of the Palace posed by the free movement of traffic on the thoroughfare, a point made by a number of noble Lords. It would also enable a large pedestrianised area to be built, on which the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and others are so keen. I am aware, however, that such a closure would impact significantly upon traffic movement in Westminster, particularly the local area. Any proposal would therefore have to respond sensitively to the views of local residents, some of whom are Members of this House, as I have heard at Question Time. That point was also made by a number of noble Lords.

I turn to a specific issue raised in the debate by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, whom I congratulate on asking me a question for which I have responsibility. The question concerned the removal in the Summer Recess of the black portacabins in the car park, now that the new visitor reception building is open. The noble Lord’s proposal that we should convert that area into a parking area for cycles would be a matter for the Administration and Works Committee in the first place. However, I would point out that we do not offer parking facilities for visitors at all, whether they arrive by bike, car or whatever. I would also point out that there is great demand for parking spaces in front of the palace and that Peers will much welcome the return of those places when the black portacabins have gone.

In conclusion, Parliament Square is a world famous public square of historical, political, religious and cultural importance, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, made clear in his fine opening speech. I hope that I have demonstrated how committees and representatives of this House and the other place are engaging with the world squares steering group as the proposals develop. The Administration and Works Committee will continue to scrutinise the development of the proposals with a view to ensuring that the right balance is struck between the need to facilitate access to Parliament, the requirement to ensure the security of Members and staff, and the desire to improve the visitor experience. Noble Lords are welcome to submit their views on this or any other proposal to the Administration and Works Committee. They are also welcome to convey their views directly to the Greater London Authority, Transport for London and the mayor.

I thank the noble Lord for bringing this subject forward, and I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate.

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.29 pm.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.11 to 8.29 pm.]