Westminster officials ‘heading towards’ recommending rejection of Shoah memorial

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Westminster officials ‘heading towards’ recommending rejection of Shoah memorial

Fiery letter from local authority's leader to Ed Balls and Lord Pickles suggests they'd been “misadvised” by consultants on the project

Justin Cohen is the News Editor at the Jewish News

Proposed design of Westminster Holocaust Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens
Proposed design of Westminster Holocaust Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens

Westminster Council officers are “heading towards” recommending the rejection of a planning application for the new national Holocaust memorial and learning centre next to Parliament.

The revelation was contained in a blistering letter from Council Leader Cllr Nickie Aiken to Ed Balls and Lord Pickles, who co-chair the foundation supporting the proposed memorial.

Revised plans for the Victoria Tower Gardens site were submitted to the Council earlier this year following objections by local residents and The Royal Parks which expressed environmental concerns.

The memorial, which was the central recommendation of David Cameron’s Holocaust Commission, has the backing of Britain’s five living prime ministers and leading representatives of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths.

In a letter to Aiken in April, Balls and Pickles express “surprise and concern” that Aiken and her officers were giving “excessive weight to the number of objections lodged on the planning portal”.

They added: “Our concerns are reinforced by the number of antisemitic remarks that have been allowed to remain on the planning portal for far too long… These racist slurs often reappear on the portal.” They then urged “continued vigilance”.

In a letter obtained under a Freedom of Information request and seen by Jewish News, Aiken responds several weeks later in a fiery manner, calling the pair “naïve” and suggesting that they had been “misadvised” by consultants.

“I profoundly refute the very serious and wholly unfounded allegations,” she said in a letter dated 24 May. “As highly experienced national politicians, I am extremely disappointed with your irresponsible and frankly offensive assertions.”

Aiken said “concerns on a number of issues relating to how the proposal compares to local planning policy” had been raised, including land use, design, impact, trees and highways. “It was also explained that a significant number of objections from residents and statutory consultees had been received,” she said.

“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 advisors were able to give you the impression that it was the number of objections was the primary concern, given the breadth of the other matters discussed.”

She added that Balls’ and Pickles’ comments in respect of excessive weight being attached to one aspect of the material considerations in determining planning proposals were “naïve and patently untrue”.

The government remained firmly behind the project tonight. Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Communities, said: “The National Holocaust Memorial and Education Centre has the complete and unshakeable support of the Prime Minister and I. It is a project of exceptional national significance.”

Referring to rising antisemitism in the UK, he added: “There can be no bystanders in this battle. Everyone in public life, including all local authorities should appreciate the gravity of the present situation and play their part in tackling anti-semitism.

“Ensuring a fitting national memorial to the Holocaust and a place to educate the next generation of the consequences of racism and hatred is absolutely essential.”

Pickles said the situation had moved on since the letter. “Many of the issues referred to… have now been cooperatively resolved with Westminster Council,” he said.

“Everyone in public life has a duty to be vigilant for expressions of antisemitism… There can be no reasonable doubt that Victoria Tower Gardens is the best location for the memorial”.

A Westminster City Council spokesperson said: “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.”

Board of Deputies President Marie van der Zyl said, that: “at a time when antisemitic incidents are at an all-time high, rejecting this vital memorial to Holocaust victims would send entirely the wrong signal to society.

“Secretary of State Robert Jenrick is right to warn Westminster Council against a calamitous decision that would bring deep international shame on them. We urge anyone thinking of objecting to this project of huge significance to our country, our community and the victims of the evil, Nazi genocide to think again.“

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