Mandarins say No Minister to traffic ban: Intense lobbying by Whitehall staff ruined a plan to open a historic site to the public. David Lister reports
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Thursday 02 June 1994
But had they scripted such an episode could they have come up with the cast of characters revealed in the letters leaked to the Independent which effectively squashed a plan to open up a historic London site to the public?
There is, for example, the Prime Minister's principal private secretary almost straining civil service language to its limit in rebuking a permanent secretary for his audacity in commending the plan, and then in another letter turning logic on its head by claiming that banning traffic and letting people nearer Downing Street would create a 'Fortress Downing Street'.
The Minister for London, John Gummer, blustered that closure of a road to traffic enhancing it dramatically for walkers and tourists was unthinkable because 'the road is much used by ministers'.
The plan to free Horse Guards Parade - site of Trooping The Colour - of parked cars and to open it up to tourists and pedestrians, and in addition to close adjoining Horse Guards Road to traffic, was proposed last year by the Royal Parks Review chaired by Dame Jennifer Jenkins. It received the speedy backing of the Department of National Heritage, and the support of MI5 as it would lessen security risks.
But there was one key factor preventing this aesthetic development of London. For most of the year Horse Guards Parade is where up to 800 Whitehall mandarins park their cars.
When Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage, broke ranks last October and recommended the removal of cars, alarm bells rang in the leather armchairs of White's and Brook's.
Alex Allan, the Prime Minister's principal private secretary, responded to Hayden Phillips, permanent secretary at the Department of National Heritage, with an alacrity only seen in Whitehall when national security or civil service car parking spaces are under threat.
Telling him that the Prime Minister would countenance neither ending parking nor resurfacing, he added: 'I am sorry if this causes you difficulties.' He then gave what in civil service linguistics passes for a high level rollicking: 'It would have been very much easier to have reached a decision earlier if we had been consulted while the plans were being drawn up, rather than simply being told via a circular letter at relatively short notice that parking was being withdrawn.'
In other ministries, other Sir Humphreys were badgering their Secretaries of State, who duly obliged in firing off to Mr Brooke letters stamped 'Policy In Confidence'.
Mr Gummer came through the audition for the next series of Yes Minister with flying colours with the damning sentence: 'The road is much used by ministers and others moving between SW1 and W1: its closure would extend journey times quite considerably at times of congestion.'
Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor of the Exchequer, sent Mr Brooke a handwritten reminder of how opposed he was to the proposals, saying that if traffic were diverted 'the environmental impact of this on Whitehall should not be underestimated'.
The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, seems best suited to the Paul Eddington role, going through one-and- a-half pages of angst and soul- searching before coming down on the side of his mandarins' car parking spaces.
The security service, he acknowledged, supported the closure of Horse Guards Road. 'The Metropolitan Police would also have no objections to the proposal on traffic or other grounds (so much for the congestion and environmental fears of the other Cabinet ministers). I understand that there would be no police manpower issues and that the control measures would be enforced by the Royal Parks Constabulary.'
At this point Sir Humphrey must have entered the office, looked over Mr Howard's shoulder and spluttered, for the Home Secretary changes tack: 'Nevertheless, as colleagues have pointed out, there are wider considerations. When the matter was last considered collectively the view was taken that the presentational and practical difficulties associated with it outweighed the potential security gain . . .
'I very much see the force of colleagues' reservations over proceeding with the closure and in the light of them I would not at all want to argue that the security considerations are compelling.'
The freeing of Horse Guards Parade of cars has been one of the main objectives of a two-pronged campaign launched in the Independent some weeks ago. Firstly, to remove parked cars from the forecourts and public spaces surrounding major national cultural institutions and historic buildings such as the British Museum, the Royal Academy forecourt off Piccadilly and Horse Guards Parade itself. The other prong is to develop the idea of continental-style pavement cafes to brighten up city life.
There have already been some successes. The Royal Academy has indicated an end to car parking and the proposed Royal Albert Hall development is to take on board elements of the campaign. But in other cases the Establishment has risen to the challenge of preserving its car parking spaces - most notably at Horse Guards Parade where the stops have most forcefully if most secretively been pulled out.
It is ironic that for several weeks a year the 800 people with car park permits for Horse Guards Parade have to make alternative arrangements anyway as the space is used for Trooping The Colour rehearsals and for state visits. But to travel by train or park five minutes distance away on a permanent basis is too much to ask.
Last year the Jenkins committee reported: 'Of course civil servants and others like to come to work by car. But such privilege ill accords with government policy to reduce the use of the private car for the journey to work and the desire to improve the quality of urban life. The conversion to a car park of the centre of one of London's many squares would cause immediate uproar about the loss of vital open space. It is quite unacceptable that so fine an open space as Horse Guards Parade should be used in this way. On grounds of security . . . proposals have been put forward for a reduction in the number of spaces. If security were really to prevail, no cars would be allowed at all.
'For different and more positive reasons relating to the quality of this Royal park (St James's), the group believes car parking should be banned. Apart from enhancing the physical appearance of the area, it would extend the space for tourists and visitors to what is now the very congested centre of the city. Staff who have to travel to work by car should be allocated spaces, at commercial rates, in The Mall or preferably outside the park.'
Recommending that Horse Guards Road be closed to regular traffic, the Jenkins committee said: 'Freed from regular traffic, two now separate areas within the park could be rejoined - the parade ground and the inner park of St James. This link would provide people on foot, especially visitors to London, with a natural, safe and enjoyable route from Whitehall into the park . . . Canaletto for example showed the park, pre-Nash, with a wide promenade parallel to Birdcage Walk flowing in and around the parade ground.'
The report was handed to the Department of National Heritage in April 1993. By October a circular had been sent round Whitehall saying parking would be withdrawn from Horse Guards Parade for resurfacing. A Whitehall source said senior civil servants did all they could to lobby their ministers and stop the Horse Guards changes from going ahead because they would lose their car parking spaces and have a short walk to an alternative site.
Thus is policy made.
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