Westminster Council has today unveiled plans to install a pedestrian crossing in Parliament Square. For many the news that it doesn’t have one will come as a shock. But it is a sad consequence of the civic contempt with which Britain’s most symbolic public space has been treated for decades.
Westminster Council leader councillor Colin Barrow announced that “now is the time to reclaim the square for all Londoners and their visitors once and for all." The tacit implication behind this being that a well used and accessible square will make it much more difficult for demonstrators to mount the kind of permanent protest camps that have scarred the square for years.
This is a step in the right direction. The fact that the centre of the square has been rendered virtually unreachable by the public by the fact that not one single pedestrian crossing exists there is as farcical as it is tragic. It also makes a complete mockery of Westminster’s claim to be the ‘cradle of democracy’.
Furthermore, the announcement marks welcome if belated political recognition of the simple fact that permanent protest camps will not be discouraged by erecting fences or punitive legislation but by employing good design to embed the square into an active public realm and thereby make it open and accessible to all.
But the move is still a long way off from transforming Parliament Square into the kind of exemplar public space that both London and the UK deserve. Since Boris Johnson’s lamentable decision to cancel plans for the square’s redevelopment shortly after his election victory he has singularly failed to come up with any alternative whatsoever.
The square is still dominated by traffic. Its relationship to Westminster Abbey remains under-utilised. Its provision of public space remains poor. It is severed from its surrounding public realm. Pedestrians are consistently marginalised. And it lacks the kind of effective management plan that would protect the right to protest but ensure that this does not damage the fabric, accessibility or character of the square.
Parliament Square doesn’t just need a new pedestrian crossing, it needs a masterplan and it needs a vision. And it will continue to be a national embarrassment until it gets them.
Related blog from last year, Demonstration vs Democracy at Parliament Square