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26 January 2010

Boris Johnson protects his royal friends — again

Mayor's office withholds correspondence with architecturally interested prince.

By James Macintyre


Some time ago, I broke a rather fun little story about how the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square was being reserved for the Queen, which explained why a rotation of contemporary art exhibits was standing in for a full-time occupant of the privileged platform.

Part of the story related to a secret U-turn performed by Boris Johnson, the relatively new London mayor, who had wanted a permanent statue honouring the Battle of Britain hero Keith Park before he was got at by shadowy establishment figures in the know. “It’s as if Boris was told the nuclear secret,” a source said at the time.

From the report:

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In May [2008], Mr Johnson withdrew his previous support for a permanent statue honouring the Battle of Britain hero Sir Keith Park. Before he was elected, Mr Johnson said he supported a campaign by Terry Smith, the chief executive of a City brokerage, to honour Mr Park, a New Zealand-born RAF commander seen as an unsung Second World War hero.

Later, in a written answer to a question from Jennette Arnold, a Labour member of the London Assembly, Mr Johnson supported the arrangement by which the plinth is reserved for contemporary sculptures which only stay in place for a year or two. Mr Johnson, who by this time had been told of the plan to honour the Queen, wrote of Mr Park: “The fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square would be a wonderful spot, but it appears complex planning issues would make it difficult to secure this location on an ongoing basis.”

He went on: “There are also outstanding commitments to exhibit contemporary sculpture on the fourth plinth. I recognise that this revolving programme has proved very popular with the public and I welcome the important contribution it has made in shaping public debate about contemporary art. I am therefore exploring, with the Keith Park campaign, what is the best option available for them in view of these circumstances.”

Now it has emerged that Johnson is leaping to the defence of the Queen’s son Prince Charles, as his office blocks the release of correspondence between the two men which may relate to the interventionist heir to the throne’s very particular views on architecture. You will find full details on Adam Bienkov’s site here.

The mayor’s approach is in contrast to that of Ben Bradshaw, the Culture Secretary, who reacted to Prince Charles’s attempts to derail Richard Rogers’s efforts to redevelop the Chelsea Barracks, in central London, by privately contacting Rogers to express his support (scroll down from the link).

Bienkov’s Freedom of Information requests for the letters go some way to tackling the wider issue of the prince’s role in public policy. Doubtless, he has a chum in “Bozza”. But should a man who — unlike the Queen — has little understanding of his constitutional role be allowed to influence decision-making so brazenly, or at all?