Publications / Reports

A Place for People: Proposals for Enhancing Visitor Engagement with Parliament's Environs

4 May 2011
Panoramic photo of Parliament Square, Westminster

The area around the Palace of Westminster, especially Parliament Square, is the constitutional heart of the UK. It should be one of the world’s great civic spaces - but currently it can be confusing and unwelcoming. This report sets out radical ideas for a more coherent vision for the area, to provide an enriched experience for all those drawn to it.

  • The south side of Parliament Square, in front of the Abbey, should be closed to traffic completely, and restrictions placed on through traffic on the east side along St Margaret’s Street and Abingdon Street in front of Parliament. The Peers’ car park in Old Palace Yard should also be removed.

  • Facilitating greater pedestrian access to the Square would help reduce the risk of a permanent protest camp being re-established: it will be much more difficult for a camp to be maintained on a site that thousands of visitors can access each week.

  • Map and information provision in the underground station must be dramatically improved in time for the events of 2012. The available information is of poor quality and is out of date.

  • Transport for London’s Legible London street signage should be rolled out to Westminster as soon as possible. If possible, information about the World Heritage Site should be incorporated into the maps and signage.

  • Information panels and 3-D dioramas should be provided in the World Heritage Site, Parliament Square and Victoria Tower Gardens  depicting the historic development of the area. These should all be linked together to form a guided walk through the history of the site – the location of each one marked on site maps with further information linked and made available through guidebooks and multi-media guides. A broad range of guided walk maps should be produced embracing a range of democratic, historical and cultural themes.

  • A Magna Carta Walkway encompassing the sites associated with British democracy should be established in time for the 2015 anniversary.  

  • A cultural and heritage corridor walk from Trafalgar Square to Tate Britain should be developed, supported by a mix of information maps, leaflets and digital applications, to relate the democratic story in engaging and imaginative form as discerned through the mix of art, statuary and sculpture en route.

  • A major new public sculpture on a democratic theme, to be installed in Victoria Tower Gardens, should be commissioned to mark the Magna Carta anniversary in 2015.

  • The Parliamentary Bookshop on the corner of Bridge Street and Parliament Street should be redeveloped as an Information Centre. Here visitors should obtain maps, leaflets, pamphlets, and multi-media guides. Ticketing facilities for parliamentary tours might also be provided.

  • The range of gifts and souvenir items should be expanded with more innovative approaches to developing a branded line of merchandise. The traditional red/green Portcullis range of souvenirs could be restricted for exclusive sale on the parliamentary estate but a custom made high-quality range of souvenirs, sourced, designed and made in Britain should be sold in the Information Centre and online.

  • Guides or wardens should be recruited for the World Heritage Site, to help answer visitors’ questions, guide them to points of interest, and direct them to neighbouring locations.

  • The Square should be a forum for spontaneous and organised citizenship similar in style to a Speakers’ Corner. It should be a place where the great thinkers, writers, and artists of the day can give talks and lectures and engage in discussion with the public about their ideas. The Square could also on occasion be a theatre for bringing alive our democratic history: a place where key moments in the development of British democracy are dramatised.

  • A rich and diverse programme of events could be developed through collaborative partnerships to celebrate national days and anniversaries with resonance in our democratic history, or to mark commemorative days such as the International Day of Democracy, World Heritage Day, or the Magna Carta anniversary.

  • In order to manage participation in the Square a Steering Group should be formed involving neighbouring institutions, the local authorities and user representatives. This Group should develop a protocol for light touch management of activities in the Square incorporating concerns around noise and access as well as a code of conduct.

  • A ‘People’s Terrace’ tea-house / visitor facility should be established in the Gardens adjacent to Black Rod’s Garden. Visitors should finish the line of route tour here, exiting to a café, shop, toilets etc modelled on the facilities available in other Royal Parks.

  • This facility should offer visitors refreshments and souvenir sales during the day and provide meeting space for democratic debate in the evenings and at weekends (e.g. book-club readings or coffeehouse challenge style evenings).

  • The facility should be designed for multi-purpose use for state events, particularly State Funerals: for example, to locate memorial condolence books for signature or accommodate security checks for queues of mourners if required.

  • The Gardens, with improved visitor amenities, should become the focal point of a programme of events organised around democratic themes: for example, cinema screenings, concerts, theatrical performances, or book readings, particularly during the summer months. They should also be used for mobile exhibition displays, for example of photographic works on a democratic theme similar to Parliament’s ‘The Election Project’ collection.

  • Changes to the line of route would mean that an Education Centre could be provided off Westminster Hall: the W meeting rooms, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association room, and the Inter-Parliamentary Union room, as well as the Jubilee Café and toilet amenities could be converted for education purposes.

  • The ‘Parliament Past and Present’ exhibition should be completely overhauled and brought up to modern day exhibition standards.

  • The building should be converted for use as exhibition and interpretation space, enabling Parliament to better display some of the treasures in its art and archival collection, as well as provide information about its role, function and history. This should compliment what is available on the line of route tour and the exhibition space in the Jewel Tower.

  • A feasibility study should be undertaken to investigate the viability of converting the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre into a multi-stakeholder Visitors’ Centre focusing on the history and constitutional relationship between the institutions in the area. It could encompass exhibition and interpretation space, theatres, refreshment and retail facilities.

  • Parliament should separate out the content of the Living Heritage section of the website and create a new stand-alone site which highlights and showcases its cultural and heritage assets and better facilitates public engagement with its collections through enhanced multi-media and social media strategies than the current parliamentary website permits. Consideration should be given to whether this website is developed independently or whether it would be better – in investment and intellectual terms – to develop a multi-stakeholder Westminster World Heritage Site website linking together the cultural and heritage assets of Parliament, the Abbey, and the Supreme Court.

  • A diverse range of smartphone applications should be developed to enable the public to engage with Parliament and the World Heritage Site from outside the building. These would enable Parliament to offer the public a broader range of information about the building, its function and history and leverage greater value from the art and archival collections.

  • Elements of the real-world physical environment could be augmented by computer-generated imagery to enable people to see the past, present and future of the built environment. This technology could, for example, bring alive the development of Thorney Island, and recreate ‘lost’ features such as the River Tyburn and the sections of the Palaces of Westminster and Whitehall that have now vanished. This could be provided on static devices in a new Visitor Centre or integrated into mobile multi-media guides.

  • Parliament should provide access to its cultural and heritage assets  through development of on online catalogue collection that can be personalised, integrated with social media for dissemination, and is licensed for public use. This would democratise access to the works of art, sculptures and statuary, carvings and etchings, and the archival records.

  • Parliament currently has no means to collect, collate and disseminate the views and personal experiences of the public towards it, nor those of the members and staff who have worked in the building over the years. Oral history in relation to Parliament is a rich but largely ignored resource. Through its own stand-alone heritage website, a joint World Heritage Site website, or through links to a site like Historypin, Parliament could generate and preserve rich content about the institution and the WHS and provide a more diverse, personal, and interactive platform for engagement.

  • As currently structured Parliament is completely dependent on public money with little or no capacity to apply for investment grants or attract private sector or philanthropic funds. It needs a robust licensing operation and commercial sales strategy to take advantage of its iconic brand value whilst maintaining high standards in respect of the sourcing and production of souvenir collections and merchandise. However, it is not staffed and organised to develop and take advantage of any new revenue generation opportunities that the proposals outlined in this report might offer.

  • A social enterprise or trust model should be adopted to enable Parliament to apply a more commercial approach with all profits ploughed back into its public engagement and visitor service strategies.

  • The WHS Management Plan will be subject to review in 2012-13. Membership of the Steering Group should be revised to include the Supreme Court and a Management Plan co-ordinator should be appointed.

  • The boundary of the World Heritage Site should also be extended to include Victoria Tower Gardens, Abingdon Green, Old Palace Yard and Parliament Square and if possible Canning Green.

  • Introduction

  • Chapter 1: The Study Area: Context and History

  • Chapter 2: Access, Information and Interpretation

  • Chapter 3: Rethinking the Use of Public Space

  • Chapter 4: Exhibition Facilities and a Visitors' Centre

  • Chapter 5: Harnessing the Digital Realm

  • Chapter 6: The Business Case

Hansard Society (2011), A Place for People: Proposals for Enhancing Visitor Engagement with Parliament's Environs (London: Hansard Society)

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