Former environment secretary John Gummer – now Lord Deben – christened NLA’s latest exhibition and talks series on public space last night by declaring it a timely reminder of the ‘enormous change’ that London has experienced in this area. These changes – as well as remaining an open culture to other nations – had contributed to making London into the greatest city in the world, he added.
Gummer, speaking to a packed private view crowd at Public London, said that although there was still a lot more to do, public realm has improved considerably in the 10-year time period of the show’s projects.
‘I just remember the battles to get any new public space’, said Gummer, ‘because people would say “oh, Secretary of State, we ought to do something with it, we ought to put something there” – and I found this quite a useful mechanism because I wanted to get the Inland Revenue out of Somerset House. It was very hard – Treasury is a very difficult set of people to deal with’.
Gummer said he hit upon the concept of open space – in other words, that he took control of what was little more than a car park. ‘So I closed it. And the Inland Revenue didn’t want to stay there. I discovered that the only reason they wanted to be there was because of the car park.’ Once this became the ‘wonderful’ public space that it now is, the IR were much easier to get out of the building, said Gummer. ‘And now we have another great London building returned to the people of London.’
Trafalgar Square was a more difficult venture, and Gummer never triumphed with his plans for Parliament Square – which will not be used properly for the public as a whole – rather than just protesters, until there are road closures put in place.
But it was important to look to the bright side and be proud of London’s mix.
‘Sometimes we spend our time complaining about how bad things are and we tend to be pessimistic about how much still remains to be done’, said Gummer. London is the only world city, he added, and it’s become that in the last 20 years under different parties, through its architecture and public spaces, but also because of all the people from 28 countries of the European Union and beyond that are in London. ‘Opening up the spaces means we can live that life together in a way in which we were never able to do before. We are like this in London because it is for everyone – not just Londoners. This is the greatest city in the world and I am proud to live here and prouder still to be asked to open this exhibition, which is a great tribute to so many people who have contributed so much to the city all of us are proud to live in.’
David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly