The leader of Westminster City Council has said that the government’s planning application for the National Holocaust Memorial ’was heading towards an unfavourable recommendation’ by planners
Councillor Nickie Aiken made the comment about Adjaye Associates and Ron Arad’s controversial scheme in a strongly worded letter to UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation co-chairs Ed Balls and Lord Pickles which has been uncovered under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
Balls and Pickles had written to Aiken following a meeting between representatives of the applicants and council planning officers. In this letter they claimed that ‘officers presented as giving excessive weight to the number of objections lodged on the planning portal’.
In her response, dated 24 May, Aiken said she could not comment on the proposals as the application was live but refuted their ‘irresponsible and frankly offensive assertions’ about the operation of the council’s planning service. She said: ‘I can confirm with complete confidence that your planning proposal will be dealt with in a wholly professional and robust manner.’
Aiken said that the planning case officer and agent for the applicants had discussed concerns in relation to how the proposal compares with local planning policy, including design, land use, trees and highways, and that ‘a significant number of objections from residents and statutory consultees had been received’.
She added: ‘As such, given this range of issues, it was advised that the application was heading towards an unfavourable recommendation. It is difficult to see how your advisers were able to give you the impression that it was the number of objections [that] was the primary concern, given the breadth of the other matters discussed.’
She described Balls and Pickles’ comments on ‘excessive weight’ being attached to the volume of objections as ‘naïve and patently untrue’.
The correspondence was obtained under FOI by the Save Victoria Tower Gardens (SVTG) campaign group, which objects to the siting of National Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in the gardens by the Houses of Parliament.
Architect Barbara Weiss, co-founder of SVTG, said the group was not surprised that Cllr Aiken had said the application was ‘heading towards an unfavourable recommendation’. She said: ‘That’s the one conclusion that should be reached by anyone who knows anything about planning law.
‘There are very strong policies about building in parks and public green spaces, and this is the most extraordinary park on the edge of a World Heritage setting with protected views.’
Weiss added that the campaign was not against building a national Holocaust memorial or learning centre but believed that the park was the ‘wrong site’.
New view south towards buxton
However, supporters say that the siting next to the Houses of Parliament is symbolic.
Writing for the AJ, co-designer Arad said the project was ‘very particular’. He said: ‘It is not about the Holocaust in the context of war; it is about the Holocaust in the context of government, it is about the British story and its relationship to it, and it is about our role as a democracy in standing up to injustices and doing our best to prevent other genocides. I cannot imagine a more appropriate choice of site for the project.’
Aiken’s letter was sent a couple of weeks after the government committed a further £25 million to the project in order to provide further funding for the revised entrance pavilion, the memorial courtyard and surrounding landscaping, and to take account of additional VAT incurred on the overall project costs. The then prime minister Theresa May was joined by four former prime ministers – Sir John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron – in backing the proposal.
The controversial scheme, to which the government committed £50 million in 2015 to kickstart fundraising, has drawn objections from Historic England, the UK branch of Icomos (the International Council on Monuments and Sites) and the Royal Parks. Supporters include UK Holocaust memorial charities the Holocaust Educational Trust and Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.
Earlier this month, Robert Jenrick, the new secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, said strong backing for the project from senior faith leaders the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Nichols, Chief Rabbi Mirvis and Senior Imam Qari Asim was an ‘important message’.
In June, SVTG accused the government of trying to ‘rig’ the consultation for the memorial by bulk-posting comments in favour of the application.
The government paid £118,000 to engagement consultant Big Ideas for supporting the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation’s planning application.
SVTG said the number of supportive comments sent to Westminster council grew from an average of one a day to 149 a day.
A Westminster City Council spokesperson said: ‘The Leader of the Council, Cllr Nickie Aiken, has responded to the concerns raised in the letter and made very clear that this application, like all that come before the authority, will be made on planning grounds after careful assessment of all the representations received. No decision has been taken.’
The UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation is part of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which declined to comment.
View from Millbank in original planning application (slide right) and revised (slide left)