Opponents of David Adjaye and Ron Arad’s controversial Holocaust Memorial have lambasted the government’s decision to call in the scheme, calling it an ‘undemocratic power grab’
In an unexpected move, the government decided on Tuesday evening (5 November) that housing minister Esther McVey would decide whether the scheme went go ahead instead of Westminster Council.
The local planning authority had been preparing to make a decision on the scheme after it was submitted for the contentious site at Victoria Tower Gardens on Millbank earlier this year.
The UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation’s (UKHMF) asked for the scheme be called in on 30 October and McVey accepted its request a few days later.
Eric Pickles, who co-chairs the new memorial foundation, tweeted that he was ‘delighted that [McVey] has “called in’’ the planning application’, adding that both he and co-chair Ed Balls ‘agree … that the decision should be taken nationally’.
But the decision and its timing, on the eve of parliament’s dissolution ahead of the December 12 general election, has been strongly criticised by opponents of the memorial.
Ruth Deech, who is part of a group of Jewish peers opposed to the project, said: ‘It is insulting to use the start of an election campaign to hide this undemocratic power grab.
‘I am also deeply suspicious of the overlap between Conservative Party fundraising and the backers of the project. The Jewish community has been steadily turning against this politicised project because there are much better ways to tackle antisemitism’.
Meanwhile, the Save Victoria Tower Gardens (SVTG) campaign said the government was ‘subverting’ the checks and balances of the normal planning process.
‘Now the secretary of state [sic] will be judging the government’s own planning application without the benefit of the council’s recommendations,’ said architect Barbara Weiss.
A public inquiry will now be held and overseen by an independent planning inspector, while McVey will have the final call on the application if she remains housing minister after the election.
The foundation’s letter argued that the scheme had ‘generated national interest’ with over 4,500 comments uploaded to Westminster Council’s planning portal, many of which ‘refer to the significance of the memorial to the nation’.
However, a significant chunk of those comments were objections and the UKHMF has faced criticism for trying to ‘rig’ the planning application for the site after it paid consultants £118,000 for a ‘public engagement campaign’.
According to opponents of the scheme, the campaign saw a spike in the number of supportive comments sent to the planning authority from an average of one a day to 149 a day.
The call-in follows revelations this summer that Westminster Council officers were ’heading towards’ recommending rejection for the scheme.
A Westminster City Council spokesman said: ‘We note the government has called in the planning application for the proposed UK Holocaust Memorial for a local inquiry.
‘We’ve been clear to date that we would consider the scheme on its merits and in line with our planning policy. We await further information from the Planning Inspectorate on the proposed call-in process and will play our part as necessary.’
Early call-ins such as this are rare. Asked for precedents, the ministry said it had called in a modification to a Hazardous Substances Consent at a site on the Greenwich peninsula linked to delivery of the Silvertown Tunnel.
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