Environment: A vision of the heart of London without traffic

Traffic is to be restricted in London's two greatest squares, transforming them for the benefit of pedestrians.

It is one of the least expensive of the capital's millennium projects. It could also be the most lasting, says Nicholas Schoon, Environment Correspondent.

The Government yesterday gave backing to plans to curb traffic and boost walking in the most visited and most famous part of London - Trafalgar and Parliament Squares and Whitehall.

Members of the public are being asked to give their views by the end of January, then a final plan will be drawn up and an application for National Lottery funding made.

Yesterday, Lord Rothschild, chairman of the Heritage Lottery Fund, said he would be delighted to help fund the project which will cost between pounds 20m and pounds 40m. Work could begin before 2000.

With the scheme having won such enthusiastic support from its inception under the previous government, it seems certain to go ahead in some form. But there are two versions or strategies, one more radical, awkward and expensive than the other, and there are strong pressures to take the easier option.

``It's the most exciting project I've seen for a while,'' said John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, yesterday. It would ``turn our squares back to the people and away from being roundabouts".

Under both strategies, the busy road dividing Trafalgar Square from the National Gallery would be closed to all traffic and turned into part of the square. So would the road on the southern side of Parliament Square, which cuts it off from Westminster Abbey.

Under the more radical Strategy 2, two more sides of Trafalgar Square would be closed to traffic, apart from buses and cycles. Furthermore, the busy road running past the Houses of Parliament, which carries all the traffic running alongside the Thames' north bank, would also be shut to traffic, apart from buses, taxis, cycles and vehicles driving to Parliament itself.

A team of planners, commissioned by the Government and Westminster City Council and headed by the architect Sir Norman Foster, made a detailed study of the area which covers about half a square mile. They questioned thousands of drivers and pedestrians, and even discreetly trailed tourists struggling to walk through the area and cross busy roads. The current arrangements ``treat pedestrians like cattle'', said Sir Norman.

The planners have come up with a mass of further changes for the area, including new or improved pedestrian crossings, extra bus lanes, widened pavements, and a new cycle route along St James's Park. They want many car parking spaces, mostly used by civil servants, to be removed, with their place taken by open terraces and pavement cafes. And they call for the public to be allowed to walk through some of the impressive open spaces surrounded by government buildings and currently closed off, including a great circle hidden within the Treasury.

The aims are to make walking safer and easier, and to stop the view and atmosphere of famous buildings being destroyed by heavy traffic. Parliament Square is a Unesco World Heritage Site, along with such monuments as the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge.

The less radical Strategy 1 would increase congestion in central London slightly. Bus journey times across central London should be unaffected however because, while buses will be slowed down by the heavier traffic away from the squares, they will speed up near to and between them.

Strategy 2 would cause more congestion, spreading into surrounding London boroughs. Both Westminster City Council and London Transport told a press conference yesterday that they had major reservations about the second option. But they pointed out that if the Government took wider measures to reduce traffic in central London, then it could work.

Sir Norman Foster said his team had found that one in five of the cars passing through the two squares and Whitehall had no need to be there. ``They could be using the ring roads round London, but they're taking a short cut," he said.

Michael Gwilliam, director of the Civic Trust, the urban regeneration pressure group, said: ``The Government must back Strategy 2, and not shilly shally ... If we can't curb traffic in the heart of London, with all of its public transport, then where can we?''

The project, entitled World Squares for All, will take its place among several other public projects for London funded largely by National Lottery money, from the Millennium Experience Dome in the east to the complete rebuilding of Wembley Stadium in the west. Along with major new public transport systems, such as the Jubilee Line Tube extension, these structures will transform the capital.

People can see the plans and submit their views at an exhibition in the Royal United Services Institute, next to the Banqueting House in Whitehall, today, tomorrow and on Saturday.