Photo by Dinendra Haria/SOPA Images/LightRocket
Artillery Row

The Victoria Tower Gardens plot

The Government’s building plans set a dangerous precedent for London parks

On 29 July a government minister granted planning permission for the Government’s own controversial scheme to build a Holocaust Memorial and learning centre (HMLC). It is to be built in the open space known as Victoria Tower Gardens, next to the Palace of Westminster. Many readers will be familiar with the background to this: a recommendation by the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission in January 2015 that there should be a Memorial and learning centre on a prominent central London site; David Cameron’s announcement of Victoria Tower Gardens as the site in January 2016; selection of a design with 23 fins in October 2017; and a long planning inquiry in October-November 2020.

Few disagree with the proposal for the HMLC. The controversy has been almost entirely about the location. One reason is the unprecedented appropriation of much of a precious and long-established London park for a major government building project. That building it in a public park was considered at all says much about the sense of entitlement of the Cameron circle. Even on the Government’s figures, the HMLC would take fifteen per cent of the green space in the Gardens, and additional security measures, hard standing and access paths would increase the area taken to twenty-six per cent, as well as changing the character of the rest of the Gardens. The planning inspector accepted that “the perception of the park as being a space primarily offering quiet relaxation would change, with its role as the setting for the UKHMLC inevitably becoming the more substantial element of its identity as a public space”.

Another reason is the damage to heritage assets in and around the Gardens. The third is the Government’s subterfuge over the choice of site. Victoria Tower Gardens was not considered as part of the professional site-selection process. It was examined separately and privately with Downing Street support while that process was going on, and was never systematically compared with other potential sites. It was announced out of the blue with no public consultation. The fact that the learning centre as well as the Memorial would be in the Gardens was at first concealed, even from Royal Parks, and was never properly announced. With hindsight, the choice of a public open space was almost inevitable, given the Government’s stated unwillingness to pay the market price for a site. Victoria Tower Gardens was under its control and free.

How is it that all the protections for open spaces and heritage assets crumble when the Government determines to build something?

The decision of 29 July was no surprise because only an exceptionally brave junior minister would have ruled against a scheme so firmly supported by his Secretary of State and the Prime Minister. It is perhaps more surprising that the planning inspector accepted the government case in its entirety. How is it that all the protections supposedly given to open spaces and heritage assets crumble into nothing when the Government is determined to build something? The inspector’s report, mirrored by the Minister’s letter, shows how.

The report assesses each of the possible harms to heritage assets and open space, followed by the public benefits, and then decides whether the benefits outweigh the harms. Harm to heritage assets is identified in four respects. The root systems of some of the Gardens’ magnificent plane trees would be affected. In four cases this “could possibly lead to their decline and ultimately to their death”, but the inspector considers that the resulting “visual impoverishment would, in the context of the group of trees as a whole, be slight”.  The open setting of the Buxton Memorial, a grade 2* listed building commemorating the Act which abolished slavery in the British Empire, would be “materially compromised”, and there would be “awkward stylistic juxtaposition and visual congestion”. This harm is ranked as “well below the threshold of substantial” (only near-complete destruction qualifies as “substantial harm”). The harm to the Gardens as a Registered Park and Garden partly follows from those conclusions, but also from the loss of open space and the “sense of visual congestion”. Nevertheless, the scheme proposes enhancements (more on these later) to the remainder of the Gardens, so the harm overall is judged “moderate”. Logically the harms already identified must also affect the character of the Westminster Abbey and Parliament Square Conservation Area, but this harm is “only a little less than moderate”. In each case the ritual incantation is made that, even if moderate, the harm has “considerable weight” in the planning balance.

As for Victoria Tower Gardens as a public open space, the planning guidance and London and Westminster plans ostensibly establish a presumption that open spaces will be protected. National Planning Policy Framework paragraph 99 provides that open space shall not be built on unless it is clearly surplus to requirements, or it would be replaced by equivalent or better provision, or the development is for alternative sports and recreational provision (none of which apply in the present case). The London and Westminster plans both provide that open spaces will be protected in the London case, unless equivalent or better provision is made within the local catchment area, and in the Westminster case, unless the development is essential to maintaining or enhancing the land as valuable open space (neither of these exceptions apply to the HMLC proposal).

So how did the inspector find his way around the various protections? Step one is that the presumption that open spaces will be protected in almost all circumstances is superseded by a simple comparison of harms and benefits. This clears the way for a flexible interpretation of the guidance and local plans, in which it no longer matters whether any of the specific exceptions are engaged, and for a largely subjective assessment of the harms and benefits. 

Step two is to regard the supposed enhancements of the Gardens as an inseparable part of the scheme and as offsetting the loss of open space and minimising harm, though such offsetting is not envisaged in the guidance or plans. In practice most of the proposed changes are either unwanted, trivial (such as repairs to footpaths), or harmful. If needed they could have been carried out separately from the HMLC scheme; any funding comes ultimately from the Government either way. So here is the Government’s new principle for open spaces (cash-strapped local councils take note): it is permissible to build on an open space provided you make improvements to what is left, even if the “improvements” are to remedy your own previous neglect.

The proposed HMLC is a remarkable example of planning without any democratic safeguards

Step three is to dismiss alternative sites, on the grounds that there is no worked-up scheme for them (how could there be?) and a new scheme might take five years to develop. In other words, although the Government showed little interest in Holocaust commemoration for seventy years after the war, has stubbornly insisted on a controversial site for the last five years and never at any stage carried out a systematic comparison of sites, the matter is now too urgent to consider whether the right site has been chosen. Although it would indeed be desirable for the HMLC to be completed while some Holocaust survivors are still alive, the more important purpose of the HMLC is surely to tell the story when the survivors who could have done so are no longer with us. With a less cramped site the job could be done better, with greater public benefits.

Step four is to claim that the public benefits of the HMLC can only be fully achieved on the currently proposed site. The first of these arguments is that placing the HMLC in a prominent position in central Westminster will demonstrate the significance attached to remembering the Holocaust, and that a less prominent location would indicate less significance. However, there was never a comprehensive search for central Westminster sites, or a comparison between the Gardens and such sites, and the Gardens is not uniquely prominent. Other sites with at least as much significance could have included Whitehall, with the learning centre in a nearby government building. There could have been a monument in the Gardens (perhaps on the scale of the Cenotaph) with the learning centre close by in Millbank. There is also a large area north of Bridge Street owned by the House of Commons, much closer to the Palace than the current proposal. None of these, of course, would have been as cheap as appropriating Victoria Tower Gardens.

The other argument is that the Memorial must be next to the Palace of Westminster as the home of British democracy, creating “resonance”. But the Gardens is not the only possible site close to the Palace of Westminster, and there is much woolly thinking about the relationship between democracy and genocide. Lord Pickles and Ed Balls, joint heads of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, believe that British democracy can be contrasted with the Holocaust, as if democracy and genocide are the only two possibilities, but plenty of democracies have failed without leading to genocide, many authoritarian regimes have been tolerant, and democracy itself is not a reliable barrier to racial or religious hatred.

The proposed HMLC is a remarkable example of planning without any democratic safeguards: a prime ministerial announcement out of the blue, a complete absence of public consultation about the choice of site, contempt shown for the views of the local authority (the Secretary of State restated his commitment to the project while Westminster’s planning committee was debating it), and planning permission awarded by the Government to itself. The Holocaust Memorial is of course a unique case, but the decision and its reasoning set a dangerous precedent for parks both in London and elsewhere. Next time you hear politicians talking about the importance of protecting public open spaces, remember that they probably mean it only until such time as they have another building project.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover