Ill-conceived Holocaust memorial halted
Questions now need to be asked why the government ignored key evidence
Wow! A London court today halted the Holocaust memorial that was to be constructed in a small park near the Houses of Parliament.
This is excellent news and a really tremendous victory for those who have protested against this ill-conceived plan in the teeth of ministerial pressure, character assassination and bullying of objectors by some members of the Jewish community.
The proposed location, Victoria Tower Gardens, is a small green oasis in which the proposed memorial and “learning centre”, with its 23 tall, bronze fins, would be an eyesore. As a tourist attraction, it would be submerged by people and traffic. And as Lord Carlile, the government’s former reviewer of terrorism legislation, told the planning inquiry, its location would turn it into a terrorist target.
A more profound objection was that the project would undermine the uniqueness of the Holocaust as the intended genocide of the Jewish people by equating their fate with the horrific but different persecution of others, including “the victims of subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur”. In other words, it would relativise, and thus diminish, the extermination of the Jews.
In an address in 2020 to the Oxford Jewish community of which she is a member, Baroness Deech, the lawyer and former head of St Anne’s College, Oxford and one of the project’s principal objectors, observed that Holocaust memorials were increasingly being used to promote “a self-congratulatory and sometimes self-exculpatory image of the country that erects them”. She said:
The more the national Holocaust Remembrance Day events are packed out, the more the calls for sanctions on Israel that would result in her destruction, and the more the Holocaust is turned against the Jews. I hear it in parliament — “after all you people went through, look what you are doing to the Palestinians; have you learned nothing” etc.
The planning authority, Westminster council, opposed the project. But the matter was taken out of its hands by the government which rode roughshod over all the objections. It set in train a planning inquiry, which resulted in a recommendation that the memorial go ahead. The decision to do so was then taken by a junior minister, whose notional independence from his Secretary of State was disingenuously used to distance the government from the final decision so that it could appear independently taken.
Today, however, a High Court judge, Mrs Justice Thornton, brought this apparently runaway train to a halt when she quashed the ministerial decision. Here is the summary of her judgment and here is the whole thing.
Her judgment turned on a remarkable aspect of this affair — the discovery by a member of the public of a legal obstacle to the memorial which the government had ignored.
This involved Section 8(1) of the London County Council (Improvements) Act 1900. Although most of this Act had been repealed in 1965, sections 7 to 9 remained in force — thus confirming the “enduring nature of the obligations imposed by section 8”.
The objectors argued that this provision imposed an “enduring obligation to retain Victoria Tower Gardens for use as a public garden”. In her summary, Mrs Justice Thornton writes:
Section 8 of the 1900 Act is a material planning consideration, because of the potential impediment it presents to construction of the Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens and the importance attached to the construction of the Memorial in the lifetime of Holocaust survivors.
The Act was not raised at the planning inquiry by the main parties, but it was raised by a member of the public. The applicant for planning permission was on notice of the point in advance of the inquiry [my emphasis].
The Planning Inspector and Minister assessed alternative sites for the location of the Memorial without an appreciation of the potential impediment presented by the 1900 Act to locating the Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens.
The Section 8 provision was discovered in archived documents by Dr Dorian Gerhold, a former House of Commons clerk and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Society of Antiquaries. The government had claimed in court that this provision hadn’t been brought up at the inquiry. But — devastatingly — the judge says the point was raised at the inquiry. She writes:
It was raised by Mr Gerhold. The Inspector’s decision letter records that 131 written representations were received at the appeal stage. He summarises the representations including the following: “These changes would breach the condition of the donation of £1,000 made by the benefactor W H Smith in 1879, that the land was kept a made by the benefactor W H Smith in 1879, that the land was kept as a garden for the use of the inhabitants of Westminster. It would be in direct contravention of the 1900 Act under which the land was to be used as a park in perpetuity”.
So the government chose to ignore a provision which expressly prohibited it from siting this memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens.
It remains unclear why ministers have gone to such lengths to press ahead with this project. The proposal seems to have been urged upon it by a small handful of prominent members of the Jewish community with close links to the Conservative party. These acted as the government’s praetorian guard over the proposal, with some of them accusing objectors — who included Jews — of antisemitism.
So will ministers now appeal against this ruling? The judge herself has refused permission to appeal. She writes:
In the absence of a real prospect of success on appeal, there are no other compelling reasons for the appeal to be heard. A “compelling” reason must be a legally compelling reason. Public interest in the project does not suffice. The argument about construction of section 8 is specific to the present application for planning permission. This is not a case where there is a need to elucidate the legal policy behind section 8 or to investigate the implications of the construction in other factual scenarios.
If the government wants to appeal her decision, it will have to ask the Court of Appeal to grant it permission to do so. We’ll have to see how far its strange obsession with siting this memorial in this particular place will now go.
I wrote here that memorialising the Holocaust is a sacred task, an act of piety. The Victoria Tower Gardens proposal was so badly flawed that it looked instead like grandstanding, with more than a whiff of narcissism, cronyism and venality.
Now it has been halted. Bravo to all who put their heads above this particular parapet and kept them there.
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