What a mess!
Through the history and workings of the buildings that surround Parliament Square – the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey, the Supreme Court, and HM Treasury – can be found our island’s democratic story. This nexus of Parliament, government, the church, and the courts is the constitutional heart of the nation. Few areas of the world are so replete with historical, political, religious, cultural and architectural significance.
The Square and the neighbouring Westminster World Heritage Site attracts over 30 million visitors a year. It should and could be one of the world’s greatest civic spaces. But too often, in practice, it is a noisy, polluted, traffic-choked roundabout, which is regularly commandeered by protest camps.
Although the area is a living, working museum of democracy, there is little by way of signage or information to enable visitors to navigate their way around the area, and identify or learn anything about the landmarks. Information about the buildings, the statues and the history of the area is minimal to non-existent. Pavements are heavily crowded, often forcing people onto the roads, and there are few places for the public
to view Parliament or the Abbey properly; apart from a handful of benches in Victoria Tower Gardens, there is nowhere for visitors to sit and rest, admire, or reflect. Security
is necessary but increasingly intrusive: the proliferation of railings, bollards, and concrete blocks encircling the parliamentary estate convey a sense of Parliament being shut off from the public. The overall effect is unwelcoming and contrary to the ideals that this public space could and should represent: a place of democratic assembly and engagement, citizenship and identity, celebration and national memory, congregation and reflection.
‘A Place for People‘ sets out the Society’s future vision for Parliament Square and the World Heritage site, showing how the area could be transformed by opening up the space both physically and intellectually.
Visitor engagement with the area – in terms of its heritage and democratic meaning – could be dramatically improved through relatively modest enhancements to the information and interpretation that is provided. It is a perfect setting for locational learning and should inform, educate, excite and inspire, provoking the curiosity of all who visit.
A space for citizenship, a place for people
The purpose of Parliament Square needs to be reconceptualised as a place for the public, a place where the public ‘stake their claim as citizens in rather than visitors to Westminster’. To achieve this, our report recommends developing a new approach to the Square as a ‘space for citizenship‘ as a counterpoint to the key institutions of our democracy which surround it.
Working with Speakers’ Corner Trust, the Hansard Society is promoting this new vision for Parliament Square.
The Square should not be a passive space but a forum for spontaneous and organised citizenship. It should be redesigned to provide a lively forum in which ordinary people as well as great writers, artists and scientists, can engage in public debate about their ideas and opinions. Events could take place in the Square,
including, for example, enactments of important moments in the development of British democracy as well as performances of great political speeches and parliamentary debates. Key events in the country’s democratic history such as the signing of Magna Carta as well as national and international days – for example the International Day of Democracy – should be commemorated
and celebrated in the Square.
In recent years the concept of the city Square as a place for citizenship has taken on ever greater resonance:
as events in Egypt unfolded, Cairo’s Tahrir Square became the symbolic focus of the ‘Arab Spring’ whilst anger at the impact of the economic crisis on young people found expression in Madrid’s Puerto del Sol Square. At the heart of Westminster we have the opportunity to remodel the concept of the Square as a truly public space for civic engagement and citizenship. In so doing we would send out a powerful statement to the world about what democracy means to us in the 21st century.
But the next few years are vital if anything is to change in Parliament Square. 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and the 750th anniversary of the first sitting of Parliament: the eyes of the world will be on Westminster as it marks a global celebration of democracy. These events provide an important window of opportunity that must be exploited urgently if progress in realising this new vision for Parliament Square is to be made.
A number of organisations and individuals have expressed support for this new vision for Parliament Square. The Speakers’ Advisory Council on Public Engagement and the Magna Carta 800th Committee have both endorsed it and are actively exploring how they might help it be realised by 2015. RICS and RIBA have both expressed their support, as have cultural leaders and politicians from across the political divide such as the former Lord Speaker, Baroness Helene Hayman, Lord Melvyn Bragg, Lord David Puttnam, and the historians Tristram Hunt MP and Lord Peter Hennessey. Organisations as varied as Article 19, the British Youth Council, Democracy Matters, Involve, London Citizens and NCVO have also lent their support.
For Open House London 2013 the Hansard Society and Parliament held an event on Parliament Square to demonstrate its potential. Blue Badge Guides gave free talks three times an hour, at five locations across the Square exploring the history of the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the Supreme Court, HM Treasury and Parliament Square itself. With the support of Arts Council England, we also commissioned sound artist and musician Jonny Pilcher to produce a composition inspired by the Open House ethos, the buildings around the Square and what they represent: democracy, justice, faith and economics.