Pavement cafes campaign wins backing from minister: Historic courtyard could be cleared of cars. David Lister reports

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT has given a clear signal that it is prepared to take action on the Independent's campaign to rid cultural and historic spaces of parked cars, and to enhance city life with continental-style pavement cafes.

The Earl of Arran, Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, says he plans to remove civil servants' cars from the forecourt of Somerset House, one of the targets of the campaign, and open it to public use.

Last week the Independent disclosed that senior Cabinet ministers and civil servants had moved to quash a plan by the Department of National Heritage to remove parked cars from Horse Guards Parade, the parking area for the most senior civil servants including those working at 10 Downing Street.

None of the leaked letters published last week, including that by the Prime Minister's principal private secretary, Alex Allan, disclosed the conflict of interest.

But in the case of Somerset House, overlooking the Thames, action now does look likely. The imposing 18th-century William Chambers forecourt is used mainly for car parking spaces for staff at the headquarters of the Inland Revenue at Somerset House, and for others including lawyers visiting the Lord Chancellor's office, who, according to a spokeswoman, 'may have particularly heavy briefs to carry'.

The courtyard adjoins the Courtauld Institute galleries and could be used for public sculptures, fountains, music and cafes. The galleries house world-famous paintings from the French Impressionist and post-Impressionist period.

Both Somerset House and Horse Guards Parade were raised with the Department of the Environment by Lord Hylton, a cross- bench peer and a supporter of the campaign.

He said: 'London is quite well supplied with parks but needs more good architectural spaces for pedestrians and for sitting out.'

In his reply, the Earl of Arran wrote: 'Thank you for your letter about improving the public spaces outside London's cultural and historic buildings.

'There are of course practical difficulties to be considered, but I am sure you are right that we should be encouraging action where we can to rid important areas of cars and bring them to life with cafes and places to sit and enjoy the scene.

'Within my own responsibilities in this department, I am actively pursuing the possibility of opening up Somerset House to public use, including removing civil servants' cars from the courtyard to allow greater public access.'

However, the Earl did rule out a suggestion by Lord Hylton that a National Capital Commission for London be set up to give the capital the kind of focus formerly provided by the Greater London Council.

John Murdoch, head of the Courtauld Institute galleries, said: 'It is nothing short of a disgrace that one of the most elegant 18th-century facades in Britain should be a car park for Inland Revenue staff.'

(Photograph omitted)

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