The ongoing farce that is the Parliament Square 'Democracy Village' took its latest surreal twist last week when the Court of Appeal delayed a decision on whether protestors can be evicted from Parliament Square. London mayor Boris Johnson had previously won his High Court bid to have the campaigners removed but their counter-challenge and now the procrastination of the Appeal Court throws his victory into doubt.
The initial impulse is to blame the protestors for the putrid gulag that Parliament Square has been turned into. The activists, tents and banners currently defacing the square, as well as the escalating hygiene, sanitation and waste problems that have inevitably accompanied them; have undoubtedly transformed the historic World Heritage Site into a squalid eyesore.
Parliament Square is frequently referred to as the ‘cradle of democracy’ and the protestors have cleverly sought to exploit the right to demonstration they believe this symbolic license affords them. They have every right to do so. London’s parks and public spaces have a long and proud tradition of egalitarian liberty and Parliament Square itself offers a powerful global image of how architecture can symbolise democracy.
What the protestors don’t have a right to do is selfishly exploit this privilege and tradition as a means to vandalise the fabric of the square and indefinitely prevent its reasonable enjoyment by others. This is why they should be removed.
But why are they there in the first place? Parliament Square’s democratic heritage is only part of the answer. The other is the indolence and indifference of Boris Johnson. One of the mayor’s first acts when he was elected in 2008 was to cancel plans for the redevelopment of Parliament Square along the lines of the hugely successful revamp of Trafalgar Square.
Cajoled into submission by the same powerful private car lobby that wrongly predicted traffic Armageddon when Trafalgar Square was partially pedestrianised in 2003, he inexplicably cited his wish to avert a “vast, blasted chewing-gummed piazza” as one of his reasons. (Covent Garden beware.)
The result is that Parliament Square remains a disjointed, mismanaged and traffic dominated urban space that nurtures one of the most vociferously inhospitable pedestrian environments in London. Incredibly, there is not one single pedestrian crossing to the centre of the square and anyone wishing to closely observe the statues of Churchill, Mandela or Disraeli must first risk their lives navigating some of central London’s most fearsome waves of traffic.
How on earth can we seriously promote Parliament Square as the ‘cradle of democracy’ to Britons and tourists alike and then deny access to the very people it is supposed to represent? The situation is as ludicrous as it is embarrassing and represents a damning indictment of the warped priorities that still corrode our public realm. In its current guise, Parliament Square not only proves that architecture can symbolise democracy but that it can also betray it.
Boris had it within his power to change all of this but chose not to – thus limply preserving the lesser evil at the expense of pursuing the greater good. The 1999 GLA Act clearly states that the mayor is responsible for the ownership and management of Parliament Square. Yet Boris’s sustained abdication of both obligations has directly led to the municipal vacuum so easily occupied by the demonstrators.
The irony is that the redevelopment of the square would not only have enhanced its visual appearance but would have implemented the kind of management plan and social conditions that would have made it considerably more difficult to mount demonstrations of the kind occupying the square today.
It is far easier to colonise an empty, inaccessible space than it is to take over an active, well-designed and well-managed one. Were the centre of Parliament Square a thriving, integrated part of London’s public realm rather than a nomadic, Bermuda Triangle-esque no-man’s land languishing on its fringe, then design, rather than force, could have been the tool employed to dissuade protracted mass occupations of this kind while preserving the democratic tradition of legitimate peaceful protest.
The irresistible conclusion we can draw from Boris’s decision is that as well as displaying a grievous lack of civic foresight, he’s just not very interested in public spaces. He is however, interested in cycling. At a cost of £18m, he claimed that the redevelopment of Parliament Square was just too expensive to be accommodated within Transport for London’s then budget. Yet his imminent Cycle Hire scheme, while laudable enough, incurred a presumably unchallenged price-tag of £140m at a time when TfL’s comparative budget has been slashed.
This astonishing fiscal conceit proves once again – if proof were needed - that when it comes to the built environment, those who hold public office are more likely to fashion political policy from personal preference rather than for public good. Boris’s bicycling bias is no different to Nero burning Rome just so he could rebuild it, Bavaria’s mad Ludwig III raiding the public purse to build his fantasy castles or our very own Ken Livingstone’s infamous soft-spot for skyscrapers. At least Bavaria got romantic castles; we've just been lumbered with a mutilated roundabout in the symbolic heart of London.
We will have to wait for the final judgment of the Court of Appeal before seeing which way this farcical saga will turn next. What is clear is that whatever decision is reached, Parliament Square will still be the loser. Former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind recently claimed that the actions of the protestors had turned the square into an “international embarrassment”. He’s absolutely right. But, the square has been an embarrassment long before the protestors arrived. They are not the ones to blame for it, the mayor is.