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Grosvenor Square (security)

December 12, 2006

Grosvenor Square (security)

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Those of my constituents living in and around Grosvenor Square represent an almost entirely undefended front line in this country’s war against terrorism. The reason is plain: the Home Office, the Metropolitan police and Transport for London have sought to protect the US embassy from a terrorist bomb attack while largely ignoring the needs and wishes of local residents.

Since September 2001, my postbag has bulged with heartfelt letters from people angry at how their daily lives have been ruined. They live in fear of a suicide bomb attack, regarding their homes as part of an unsightly fortress reinforced by concrete bollards. In short, many Mayfair residents regard themselves with good cause as voiceless pawns in a bureaucratic nightmare affecting their every waking hour.

I spoke on a couple of radio programmes this morning, and found that it is assumed that people well off enough to live in Mayfair can just sell up and leave. I have two things to say to that. First and foremost, everybody, rich or poor, deserves representation in Parliament. Secondly, the reality is that those homes are virtually unsaleable, given issues that I shall discuss in detail. Another point is that wealthy though bits of my constituency are, every one of them?particularly Mayfair?is cheek by jowl with less well-off areas. A lot of people in my constituency live in social housing, as I have mentioned in debates on the Crossrail project. The areas south of Oxford Street, for example, consist almost exclusively of Peabody Trust homes and other social housing.

It is pretty well universally appreciated that the US embassy is in Grosvenor Square to stay. I accept the practical reality that this is a capital city, and that one expects the US embassy, in spite of all the security considerations, to remain in the centre of the capital. Hoisting it out to some suburban area is not a practical political suggestion. As it is, the embassy stands proudly on the western side of Grosvenor Square. To many people, it is one of London’s iconic buildings. Naturally, the square’s history goes back to a time when kings and queens of England ruled the United States of America, but the area’s proud links with the US also go back to the 19th century, and long may they continue.

The US is our ally today. The safety of its embassy and the surrounding neighbourhood should be a crucial consideration for all of us after the events of 11 September 2001. The distress caused by the piecemeal building of security works around the embassy and traffic alterations on the western side of the square has been enormous. After five long, torturous years, the matter still has not been resolved. Similarly, there is no fundamental resolution or solution and no sense of long-term security for the embassy, its staff and local constituents.

Following the 9/11 bombings in New York, the US Government understandably increased security at American embassies throughout the world. In November of that year?more than five years ago, following the invasion of Afghanistan?roads east and west of the square were closed to traffic by cement bollards. To paraphrase one of my constituents, chicken wire was erected, which made visitors and everyone living in the area feel that they had stumbled upon some low-grade prison or military camp. Yet many other roads and streets running past the embassy were open to traffic and remain open to this day.

As the local Member of Parliament, I shared many residents’ exasperation when month after month I was unable to find anyone in any corner of officialdom to accept responsibility for the situation. Any MP knows that one of our advantages is being able to break down the walls of bureaucracy on our constituents’ behalf. It is one of the most important things that one can do as a local MP. It is frustrating that after endless representations to the Foreign Office, the Home Office, the US embassy itself, Transport for London?which is part of the Mayor of London’s quango?and Westminster City Council, I remain unsure to this day which institution has overall or ultimate responsibility for the matter. The failure of any organisation to take the lead means that the square’s future remains unresolved, bringing much pain to staff at the embassy and people living nearby.

I call on the US and UK Governments to accept their joint responsibility and move forward to help provide a permanent solution. As the Minister knows, I have been in touch with his private office to get as full a response as possible, although I appreciate that he may need to make further representations in writing during the weeks and months ahead. I accept that the embassy must stay where it is. Not all Mayfair residents share that view, but for practical purposes the embassy is in Grosvenor square to stay. For the sake of local residents and businesses, we should seriously consider extending the pedestrianised zone to the largely residential area around the Embassy. Similarly, any barriers or bollards should be designed in keeping with the local architecture of a highly desirable residential area in the centre of London.

It should not be beyond the wit of the authorities to take a long-term view on the US embassy’s security needs and plan accordingly. We must accept that we are in this for the long haul and that security from terrorist attacks will be a constant part of any future Government’s considerations. I take the view that the war on terror will be here for my lifetime and the lifetime of our children and grandchildren. It will last as long as, if not longer than, the cold war. We need a permanent solution for the arrangements around Grosvenor Square.

The crucial element is to ensure the safety of local residents and those who work in the neighbourhood as well as the security of those who live and work in the embassy compound itself. That contrasts starkly with what we have had to date. Since the chicken wire went up in 2001, changes to the security fences and reinforcements to the concrete bollards in and around Grosvenor Square have made the embassy more and more impregnable to roadside attacks. It is estimated that more than £6 million has been spent on this high-security area, yet the UK authorities have given very little consideration to local residents.

It seems intolerable that the Government and police should stand back and let such an unacceptable risk continue simply in order to ensure London’s traffic flow. As long ago as 2003, the police identified the embassy as one of the UK’s top six terrorist targets, and the danger has become even more acute in recent years. I hasten to add that the other five are the Houses of Parliament, 10 Downing Street, the Ministry of Defence a stone’s throw away in Whitehall, Buckingham palace and the Israeli embassy, none of which sit in such built-up residential areas. All have at least a 35 m stand-off from traffic.

The latest proposals for Grosvenor Square represent another short-term resolution. Vehicles and pedestrians are now prevented from entering or moving in the small cul-de-sacs behind the embassy, namely Blackburne’s Mews and Culross Street. On the other hand, the two main thoroughfares alongside the US embassy, Upper Brook Street and Upper Grosvenor Street, will be cordoned off by the Metropolitan police only when they choose to enforce such regulations at a time of a serious threat to the embassy.

Last night at a meeting at the embassy, members of the administrative and security staff outlined the forthcoming perimeter security project. The project was given the go-ahead in November 2005. In a letter to me at that time, more than 12 months ago, the Home Office Minister made it clear that it was the Home Office’s view that

"the current threat does not justify closure of the roads."

Such illogical reasoning showed once again that the Government’s concern in the matter has been the threat to the embassy and not the interests of the long-suffering local populace, which have received scant attention during the past five years. In July 2006, Westminster City Council gave planning permission for the enhanced security measures around the embassy. The consent prompted a host of potential traffic management plans, which were sent out for consultation and outlined at last night’s meeting.

I cannot speak too highly of the efforts of local west end councillors, especially Glenys Roberts, who I understand was in the press today for her defence of residential interests around Scott’s restaurant. I think that she has made many friends in Mayfair, as Scott’s now has no licence and, although it is open before Christmas, is not entitled to charge any of its customers. I suspect that its tables will be booked up for quite some time to come. Glenys Roberts has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of those residents who live close to the embassy. They have demanded, and continue to demand, a search for a sensible, long-term solution to those security concerns that also recognises the importance of local traffic management.

Town planning has been much in the news of late. As a Member of Parliament, I am fully aware that planning issues are a matter for local councils. In almost all cases, I rightly remain detached from planning disputes. I am sure that the Minister, who represents Harrow, East, which is now under a Tory council, will equally stand clear of planning disputes. However, the element of security in the planning issues concerning Grosvenor Square has forced me to communicate the concerns of my constituents as widely as possible.

I hope that this debate, here in our nation’s Parliament, will at last allow all parties to recognise now, in December 2006, that the security threat from terrorism is not "simply a passing phase" in our history, as was claimed by the consultant to Westminster City Council’s planning department three years ago. The Prime Minister has stated in his recent speeches that this country faces such a terrorist threat for many years to come. That is a contention with which I wholeheartedly agree. I suspect that Islamic fundamentalism will be with us for as long as the cold war, if not longer.

On the basis of such a threat, I can only call on the Government to give proper consideration to the safety and financial interests of the residents whose homes are so close to the US embassy. Most of those residents have lived there for many years, and some of the properties have been in their families for generations. Those residents are understandably worried about the massive loss in value that their properties have suffered as a result of this country’s support of the US in the Middle East. Above all, they would like to sleep soundly in their beds, rather than wake up each morning to the ugly sight of security protection, without the least hint of traffic calming, or street design or furniture in keeping with the ambience of a district such as Mayfair. The situation is a crying shame for the many tourists who come to Grosvenor Square to see a great iconic building, and little short of a disgrace. I have been willing to support the right of the various demonstrators in Parliament square to demonstrate; none the less, as we have seen, the unsightly sights have been cleared up, and I hope that there will be similar action in Grosvenor Square.

Having given the Minister some notice of what I intended to say, I want to ask him some brief questions. First, how can the Home Office explain the logic of fully protecting the embassy by closing the roads on the east and west sides of the embassy, while leaving it vulnerable to attack from the north and south sides, as is the clear indication of the road closure programme that has been announced? Secondly, do the Government understand that, by installing the concrete blocks on the north and south sides towards the centre of the street, they are pushing any potential terrorist attack towards the residents of the street, thus trading the security of the American embassy for the security of the residents?

I can only exhort the Minister to give the matter his full attention in the year ahead and, in providing the security that the embassy of our major global ally deserves, not to lose sight of the amenities that local folk have an entitlement to enjoy. Those who remain in their homes in central London, more than five years after the tragic events of 9/11 and only 18 months after four bombs went off in our own city, now find themselves quite literally on the front line in this country’s fight against terrorism. That surely should merit some more Government support and sympathy.

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Mr. Tony McNulty): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on securing this debate, and welcome the opportunity to take part in it. I listened carefully to what he said and shall try to give him some answers. I fully accept, as everyone should, that people living in London have a right to a voice and to representation, wherever they live in London. The notion of the well-off in Mayfair?for want of a better phrase?not having their voice and representation facilitated is complete nonsense, and I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman on that point. They have as much right to their views and their voice as anyone else in the country.

The hon. Gentleman will know, from the thrust of his comments, that we are trying to strike a balance between the concerns of local residents and the real concern for the security of what he described as an iconic building. I agree with him, too, by the way, that seeking a longer-term and more permanent solution must be the way forward. He was generous in his description of some of the temporary measures, which are indeed ugly?very ugly. They might work in security terms, but to be fair, they were only ever offered as a temporary but pressing solution to a real problem.

I am sorry, too, that the hon. Gentleman has experienced some difficulty in trying to find out exactly who is responsible for such matters. A number of Departments and other bodies have worked closely with the embassy to develop a range of measures that are both flexible and sufficiently proportionate to deal with the threats to the embassy, and its staff and surrounding area. Furthermore, those partners have worked with the local business and residential communities to establish and implement appropriate security arrangements that take account of their views. However, a number of different Departments and organisations have a role, on account of the numerous issues that such a complex project involves. The hon. Gentleman knows what they are, but I shall repeat them anyway.

Westminster City Council is responsible for the planning and traffic issues. The Home Office, with its remit for matters of national security and policing, has a clear interest. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, on diplomatic grounds, is the main channel to the embassy, and the Metropolitan Police Service has a strong interest, because of its operational responsibilities. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s frustration on that score, but reassure him that it is not a question of Whitehall’s refusing responsibility; rather, the issue crosses a number of different responsibilities. My predecessors who dealt with the issue in the Home Office have always sought to answer any letters as fully and as helpfully as possible, although that is helpful as defined by the Home Office, not the hon. Gentleman.

In the future, should the hon. Gentleman wish to write to someone or discuss the matter, I am more than happy for that person to be me. If the issue that he raises is not my responsibility, I will undertake to pass on his concern to whichever organisation is responsible. I am not setting myself up as the planning, traffic, security and diplomatic tsar for the Grosvenor Square area and its Mayfair residents, but it might be useful, given the complexities, if the hon. Gentleman can at least have the assurance that there is a one-stop shop. If I do not have the answers or if an issue is not my responsibility, I shall ensure that he receives the answer from elsewhere.

Mr. Field: I thank the Minister for his kind offer. That is a sensible route forward. I hope that, in his new responsibilities as Minister for Grosvenor Square, he will qualify for a grace-and-favour property in Mayfair as well.

Mr. McNulty: I was going to resist saying this, but I should also point out that I was not there in 1968, as I was only 10 at the time. Politics was certainly on the horizon; I was not there.

I turn to the specifics of the proposed permanent arrangement for the Grosvenor Square area. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is time for a long-term, fully considered and planned solution to be found for the security of the embassy and its surrounding area. Government officials and representatives of the Metropolitan police have looked carefully at the proposals of the State Department for the security of the embassy and its surrounding area, with a view to offering the embassy the best protection possible, taking into account its location and the need to minimise the impact on members of the public and local residents.

With that in mind, consideration was given to the need for the arrangements to be flexible and proportionate to the level of threat, making it possible not only to open and close the roads and grade the degree of physical restriction around the embassy to the requirements of the Metropolitan Police Service, and to minimise the unsatisfactory and unsightly nature of the temporary arrangements currently in place, but, just as importantly, to respond to the concerns of local residents. At the very least, the plans that are currently before the embassy for implementation?which, as the hon. Gentleman said, have been passed by the council?seek to strike that balance, not only between local aesthetics and security, but between what might be appropriate now, given the current threat, and what might need to be appropriate, given any further threat in the future. The solution tries to balance those two elements, closing roads off when appropriate, but having a temporary arrangement where not appropriate. That balance is the way we should go.

The embassy submitted a planning application to Westminster City Council in April 2004. The application was supported by the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Metropolitan police. It proposes the erection of two entrance pavilions to Grosvenor Square, guard booths to Upper Brook Street and Upper Grosvenor Street, fencing around the perimeter of the embassy, with gates to Blackburne’s Mews and Culross Street, and raised planters and security bollards. It also includes alterations to the road lay-out to facilitate closures, when necessary, to parts of Grosvenor Square, Upper Grosvenor Street and Upper Brook Street, a point to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Outline planning approval was granted in July this year, and detailed approval in October. Work will start in January and be completed 13 or 14 months later. As the hon. Gentleman said, last night a meeting was held between the US embassy and local residents and businesses to discuss how work could proceed with minimal disruption and inconvenience. I am happy to tell the embassy and certainly any Home Office officials involved that dialogue and discourse with local residents should continue during the disruption that there is bound to be during the 13 or 14 months of works.

In any residential area?in deepest Leicestershire or deepest Mayfair?not knowing how a schedule of works will unfold is as disquieting as the disruption caused by the work. Hopefully, we can ensure that dialogue is maintained. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will let me?his new-found champion of Grosvenor Square?know if that does not happen.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that residents’ safety is important to us and everyone involved. Security in the area for workers, residents and visitors remains under constant review. The Met police is totally committed to ensuring everybody’s safety, and the measures proposed will support the police in achieving that for the long term. I am satisfied that the permanent security measures that are being promoted, although in the first instance aimed at increasing the security of the embassy, will also significantly increase the security of those living nearby.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned road closures and said that many residents would like Upper Brook Street and Upper Grosvenor Street to be closed permanently. However, there is another factor as well as safety, aesthetics and amenities for the local residents, the security of the embassy and everything else: the area is important for pedestrian and vehicular through traffic, and we also want to minimise disruption to that.

There is a facility for those roads to be closed off as and when security needs to be stepped up in response to whatever threat. I am pretty sure that if and when the hon. Gentleman next canvasses in Grosvenor Square, he will find as many people opposed to permanent road closures for Upper Grosvenor Street and Upper Brook Street as he will those in favour. In my experience, such consultation exercises always come out at about 50:50 and tell us nothing about how to go forward.

As I said, our view is that the current level of threat does not justify permanent closure. The right and balanced approach must be to allow for temporary closure with rising bollards and checkpoints. I feel confident of that, given that closure could be achieved very quickly at the instigation of the police. That is the right balance between security and a general lack of disruption. Although we are living in difficult times, the response in respect of the embassy, as for any other building, needs to be flexible and proportionate to the threats. I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s points, because the area that we are discussing is a terribly useful cut-through when Park Lane is busy, and I go around there every now and then on my way to west and north-west London.

The temporary measures would never win any prize for aesthetics or architectural value, I hope?although plenty of things that won prizes in the ’60s and ’70s should have been knocked down before they were built. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the aesthetics, and I suspect that the embassy does; moving towards a more permanent solution must be better.

In conclusion, I hope that what I have said, in particular about the great effort and thought that has gone into implementing security measures that have as little negative impact on the local residents as possible, will go some way to reassure the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that their concerns are, and will continue to be, treated seriously.

I take his point, generously put, that the embassy is not going anywhere; as he said, more eloquently than I, the local residents are not either. We need to strike a balance between the two. I have tried to show that we are sympathetic to his constituents’ concerns about their safety, their daily environment and the value of their homes. However, the longer-term solutions for the security of the embassy and the surrounding area will go some way to address those issues. The range of security measures proposed is entirely appropriate, and has the credit of being as flexible and proportionate as possible, to deal with a change in threat to the embassy, its staff and the surrounding area.

Finally, I repeat that, given the complexities, if the hon. Gentleman needs in future to raise any matter of any description about the embassy and its surrounding area, I will be happy for him to target it at me. I shall either respond myself, or ensure that the issue goes to the appropriate authorities. I appreciate that not knowing where to tag an initial inquiry, let alone secure an answer, must be as frustrating for the hon. Gentleman as it is for the residents.

With that kind and generous offer, most uncharacteristic of me, I again congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate.

Question put and agreed to.