Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has put himself in a “stark conflict of interest” over the handling of the planning application for a proposed national Holocaust memorial, the High Court has heard.
The Government is facing a legal challenge brought by the London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust over its decision-making process for a Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in Victoria Tower Gardens – a small, triangular, Grade II-listed park next to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.
In November last year, the Government, which made the application for planning permission for the centre, “called in” the decision on the proposal, meaning it would decide whether the project should go ahead, rather than it be determined by the local authority – Westminster City Council.
The final decision is expected to be taken by Christopher Pincher, housing minister at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, following a public inquiry due next month.
At a remote hearing on Wednesday, lawyers for the trust argued that there is a conflict of interest in the way the Government has approached the handling of the planning application, and that it has failed to properly put in place rules required by EU environmental regulations to ensure there is a clear separation which allows a decision on the proposal to be made independently.
In written submissions, John Howell QC argued there had been “many statements” about the Government’s, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s and Mr Jenrick’s “commitment to the development proposed in Victoria Tower Gardens being carried out”.
He cited comments from Mr Jenrick, including a statement in which the minister said the Government was “implacably committed” to the construction of the centre.
Mr Howell said: “These statements, which go far beyond any mere predisposition in favour of the development proposed, show unequivocally that the defendant and the Prime Minister as well as ‘the Government remains implacably committed to’ the project in Victoria Tower Gardens, regardless of any objections to the planning application that any ‘naysayers’ may have.
“These statements make manifest the stark conflict of interest that the defendant has placed himself in by calling his own application in for his own determination and by subsequently declining to take any steps (as he was invited to do) to entrust the decision on the application to an independent inspector (as an appeal against any decision by the city council would have been).”
The Government is opposing the legal challenge, which is being heard by Mr Justice Holgate over two days.
In written submissions, Tim Mould QC, barrister for the Government, said that rules in England meant there were arrangements in place to ensure “appropriate separation” between “conflicting functions”, allowing the housing minister to perform his duties in making decisions over the planning application “in an objective manner and avoiding a conflict of interest”.
Mr Mould also said: “The defendant has published handling arrangements which set out how the called-in decision on the planning application for the Holocaust Memorial will be handled, so that there is a clear process for decision-making which ensures that the decision will be taken in an objective manner and avoids any conflicts of interest.”