Artillery Row

The Jenrick method

The saga of Victoria Tower Gardens

Novice Robert Jenrick-watchers may wonder if Westferry Printworks will cut short his ministerial career. Seasoned Jenrick-watchers have long wondered why a different tale of Tory donors, curious call-ins and planning shenanigans hasn’t already sunk the Housing Secretary. This is the long-running saga of the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, conceived during David Cameron’s administration, following the Holocaust Commission led by Sir Mick Davis. Unlike Westferry, it doesn’t have a pantomime baddy like X-rated property developer Richard Desmond. Quite the opposite. The obvious value of Holocaust education and self-evident need never to forget a monstrous genocide, has made people chary of criticising, and reluctant to scrutinise, this Government-backed project. 

Back in 2015, it was clear that the striking and prominent new national memorial’, co-located with a ‘world-class learning centre at the heart of a campus driving a network of national educational activity’, would require a hefty site. The two people charged with finding such a location, Gerald Ronson and Peter Freeman, apparently considered 50 possible sites but the Government refuses to publish the list. In any case, none was deemed to meet the published criteria, so Andrew Feldman, on the advice of his old friend David Cameron, wrote to the then Culture Secretary to suggest using Victoria Tower Gardens (VTG). Just three months later, in January 2016, Cameron announced that this would indeed be the location for the Memorial. 

Victoria Tower Gardens is a triangle of parkland wedged between the Houses of Parliament, the Thames and Lambeth Bridge. It houses a popular playground and is very well-used by office-workers in the area as well as local residents, many of whom live in flats without gardens. It is a regular back-drop to political interviews and is often used for art installations and outdoor cinema. It is local amenity, heritage asset and tourist attraction, but is also just much too small to accommodate the learning campus envisaged in the original specification. In the end, it seems that only one criterion really mattered: prominence. 

By the time a design was selected, there was already vocal opposition to building this or any other thing in VTG. Adjaye’s proposal, a row of towering bronze fins rehashed from a design submitted unsuccessfully for the Holocaust Memorial in Ottawa, brought the project to even wider attention. Heritage bodies objected to the project’s impact on the adjacent World Heritage Site. Some prominent members of the Jewish community, not least in the House of Lords, questioned whether memorials are really effective in combatting hatred. The UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation (UKHMF), an agency of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), ploughed on regardless.

Once a planning application was submitted to Westminster Council, in the name of the Secretary of State for MHCLG, opponents finally had a formal mechanism by which to register their objections. In the first four months of 2019 757 objections were registered on the Westminster planning portal, the vast majority supporting the idea of a Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, but questioning why it had to be built in a park. Just 98 supportive comments were registered in the same period. Taking fright at this disparity, MHCLG took matters into their own hands, paying £118,000 to an agency called Big Ideas to drum up supportive comments. The technique was simple. Big Ideas did the rounds of organisations which backed the project, and invited their members to answer two questions on a Google form. Big Ideas then uploaded these responses in bulk to the planning portal, in an astonishing, publicly-funded subversion of the planning system. By the end of May there were an additional 2734 supportive comments on the portal, many of them no more than two words long. 

A Minister is expected to be impartial about an application in which his own boss is the applicant and his own department the sponsor

Robert Jenrick took over at MHCLG in July 2019. His to-do list included resolving the issues that led to Grenfell, preparing local authorities for Brexit and fixing the housing crisis. But just two days into the new job Jenrick was publicly expressing his commitment to ensuring that the Holocaust Memorial next to Parliament should be completed. This was a bold commitment given that the project team had recently been advised by Westminster planners that the application was heading towards an unfavourable recommendation. UKHMF did not wait for that to happen. 

Records from MHCLG show that Jenrick met with Gerald Ronson on 7th October 2019, and with Lord Pickles and Chris Katkowski QC on 29th October, to discuss the Holocaust Memorial. A week later, on 5th November Lord Pickles announced with delight that the Housing Minister had ‘called in’ the application for the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in Victoria Tower Gardens. It was just hours before the start of General Election purdah, and Westminster Council learned of the decision on Twitter. 

There is now to be a public planning inquiry, as in the case of Westferry Printworks. Once the Planning Inspector has made his recommendation it will be down to the Minister for Housing, Chris Pincher, to give the final verdict on the Government’s own application to build in VTG. Robert Jenrick, who as Secretary of State would normally make the final decision, has recused himself, as he has personally expressed support for the project. So we have the absurd situation where a Minister is expected to be entirely impartial about an application in which his own boss is the applicant and his own department the sponsor. An application for a project which was a Conservative manifesto commitment and has the support of four successive Conservative Prime Ministers. Who could possibly have any faith in this arrangement? 

In the meantime, we do not know how the Memorial and Learning Centre, if built, will be funded in the longer term. We do not know how much of the £27m capital shortfall has been raised from private donors by Ronson and his new charity vehicle, Holocaust Memorial Charitable Trust, although we do know that, like the Garden Bridge, the £6m+ spent to date has been entirely from the public purse. We do not know how much, if anything, UKHMF will pay for this large chunk of publicly-owned, central London real estate. We do know that the proposal has divided Jewish opinion. 

The process of entering the Memorial, descending into the darkness of the underground learning centre and then emerging to a view of Pugin’s Palace of Westminster has been described as a ‘negative epiphany’, intended to foster a fresh appreciation of British values. Let us just hope that these are not the same values embodied by the wheeling, dealing Jenrick and Pickles. Though the original intention may have been good, the project that they so strongly back is now tainted by government secrecy, conflict of interest, subversion of the planning system and a strong appearance of predetermination. 

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