Stop Government approving its own project to build on a public park
Stop Government approving its own project to build on a public park
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A wicked land grab in one of London’s most precious areas of green space, Victoria Tower Gardens, is going on right under the nose of Parliament. We want to see any decision about the proposed Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in this small historic park next to Parliament made lawfully.
The Government, fearful that its application to build this overwhelming structure here would be rejected by Westminster City Council (which it has been), has “called in” the project to decide for itself, over-ruling if need be the recommendation of the Inspector running the necessary Planning Inquiry.
We say this cannot be right. There is a massive conflict of interest.
How can it be reasonable for Government to be both sponsor and decision-maker in a planning application?
How can any Minister adjudicate impartially on a planning application when his own Government has publicly committed to the project going ahead?
How can a Government ride roughshod over planning policy, subvert the planning process and help itself to a publicly owned green space?
These and other urgent questions hang over the Government’s plan to build a large Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in Victoria Tower Gardens (see plans below).
We, the London Parks and Gardens Trust (LPGT), have launched a Judicial Review of the decision-making process being used by the Government. We hope it will be considered urgently, prior to the scheduled Planning Inquiry starting in October, so that the Courts can ensure that a decision will be reached lawfully.
Our aim, of course, is to save the threatened historic green space for continued use as a freely enjoyed public park, but to do that we have to challenge the way that the process is being managed by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), and we need your help.
The legal point is that it is unlawful for decisions like this to be taken without institutional separation that assures that the decision maker has complete independence from any influence by the project’s promoter.
Natural enough, you would think, but the Government has so far rejected this requirement and is relying on elaborate bureaucratic measures which it says will give the Minister of Housing adequate separation from influence by the Secretary of State and the rest of the Government.
We say: “can you be serious ...?” – but we need help to take the case to the High Court.
The Government proposes to build a national Holocaust Memorial, with underground Learning Centre, right in the centre of a small, historic, central London park, Victoria Tower Gardens. The proposal would breach planning policy and statute relating to the protection of green space and heritage. It would take up a large part of the park and change its character completely, limiting access and turning what is currently public space for enjoyment and relaxation into a ticketed venue for sombre reflection on the Holocaust.
We are in no way opposed to the construction of a Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in a space that can do it justice, but Victoria Tower Gardens is wholly unacceptable and we are strongly opposed not only to the idea but also to the way in which the Government has advanced its proposals. Besides the decision-making process, concerns include:
- Rejecting all possible alternative sites without examining relative environmental impact or consulting widely.
- Expressing, publicly, its commitment to build this structure in this highly sensitive location. Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for the Department of Housing Communities and Local Government, where his Housing Minister is intending to take the decision, has said repeatedly that the Government is ‘implacably’ and ‘unshakeably’ committed to these plans, and has pledged £75m of public funds. His Department pre-empted the expected refusal by the Local Council (City of Westminster), by ‘calling in’ the application before the Council could decide it. (The Council’s Planning Committee met subsequently in February on an advisory basis and unanimously rejected the project on numerous planning grounds.)
- Failing to take proper account of the effect that construction is likely to have on the park’s unbroken lines of 100-year old plane trees and the old river wall which provides the area’s flood defences.
Why does this matter?
The Secretary of State for MHCLG, currently Robert Jenrick, is the applicant in this planning application. Now that the application has been ‘called in’ by his department, he has recused himself, given the blatant conflict of interest that would arise if he made the decision on his own application. Instead, the decision will be made by a member of Mr Jenrick’s team, the Housing Minister Christopher Pincher. However, it is also absurd to suggest that a Minister can act any less partially in relation to a planning application which has been made by his own boss, and where his own department is the project sponsor. Robert Jenrick, MHCLG and the Government as a whole, have consistently ignored any and all criticism of this project and the damage it is likely to do to the environment, surroundings and amenity value of the park.
We have no choice but to try to stop the project from being steamrolled through.
What are the legal steps we are taking?
We have asked for a Judicial Review of the Government’s conflicted process - which amounts to granting planning permission to itself. We say the Government has failed to put in place rules which it is obliged to by law to ensure the separation required.
Who are we?
We are London Parks and Gardens Trust, a small charity - details at www.londongardenstrust.org . For over 25 years we have been dedicated to championing historic green space across London for the benefit of all; we are part of a national network of County Gardens Trusts affiliated to the Gardens Trust, statutory consultees in the planning process for historic designed landscapes. Our mission is to register the historic importance of parks and other green spaces and ensure that these are protected from encroachment for the benefit of all.
Both Richard Buxton Solicitors and Counsel have agreed to progress the case for us under heavily discounted fee arrangements because of the public interest. We have an initial funding target of £5,000, though we will need more, to pay for Court fees, legal fees, and for any losses or liabilities which may arise from this case.
The effects on the gardens:
Loss of their intrinsic character from the reduction in green space, overwhelming numbers of visitors, and the security required around the gardens as well as the Memorial itself.
A reduction in the grass area of about 30% (and 36% if the steep slopes of the mound over the 'underground' Learning Centre are included).
A reduction in the size of the children's playground.
Damage to, or death of the trees due to severing the roots and hydrological changes.
The gardens will be divided visually and functionally by the Memorial and mound.
The gardens, which are the largest open space for a big local population, will be mainly inaccessible for the 30 month duration of construction.
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