It’s exactly 30 years ago that general public access to Downing Street was barred, as permission was given to build the ornate protective gates that now guard the home of the Prime Minister.
The planning application was filed on 23rd May 1989, and approved on the 4th October 1989 — 30 years ago today — following a very heated debate about whether it was right to block off the road at all.
And if the barrier was needed, would this one be suitable. Not all were convinced about either argument.
As it happens, despite all the protests at the time about people’s right to walk up to the Prime Minister’s house being denied – it wasn’t the first time that Downing Street had been barricaded.
Barriers were first erected back in 1920, to protect Downing Street from attack by people campaigning for a free Irish state. The barriers were taken down in 1922 when the Irish Free State was created.
Regular road vehicle access was restricted in 1973 when a barrier was installed, but pedestrians could still walk up to the famous door and get their photo taken.
In 1982, low level railings were installed across the entrance in response to IRA terrorism and pedestrian access essentially ended at that point.
The council, when granting planning permission noted that technically the gates are temporary (and demountable), and wanted them moved slightly back so that they were flush with the surrounding buildings. They also wanted the lanterns on the top of the gates to be gas lit, and they were initially, but they’re lit by low-energy light bulbs now, which seems a bit of a pity.
They were nearly removed when Tony Blair became Prime Minister, but he was advised against doing so for security reasons, especially as the building had only recently undergone repairs following the IRA mortar attack in 1991.
Over the years, the gates have themselves become a focal point for protests – as people try to storm the barricades by climbing over them or chaining themselves to them. While the gates protect 10 Downing Street, they have become a counter point to that famous door. The door for meeting famous people, the gates for rioting people.
Although the road is now bared to entry, it is not legally a private road, but a public right of way. Also, although the buildings of Downing Street and the Cabinet Office are designated areas under anti-terrorist legislation, the road itself is not.
However, the police have the authority to prevent access to any road, including Downing Street if they feel it could lead to a breach of the peace, which is after all how they block access to roads after accidents and the like. There is also a road traffic order in place from Westminster Council formally granting the police powers to block the road – and also the pavement directly outside the gates if needed.
However, all those powers simply grant the police the right to stop someone walking down the road – not to force them to block it from public access.
So, you can ask the police on the gate to let you in, but if you huff about your legal rights, expect the far better informed policeman to send you away.