Westminster Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre is approved

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Westminster Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre is approved

Housing Minister Christopher Pincher gives the project the green light

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Ed Balls and Lord Eric Pickles after the Holocaust Memorial decision was announced by Chris Pincher MP.
Ed Balls and Lord Eric Pickles after the Holocaust Memorial decision was announced by Chris Pincher MP.

A proposed Westminster Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre built close to the Houses of Parliament has finally been given the green light.

Christopher Pincher, Minister for Housing and Planning, confirmed the decision on Thursday to allow the controversial £100m project in Victoria Tower Gardens, Westminster to go ahead.

Lord Pickles – co-chair of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation set up to oversee the project alongside Ed Balls – was amongst those to confirm “permission granted” for the project in a tweet.

The decision comes in the wake of a public enquiry into the project – which has sparked lengthy debate over its location, impact, and size.

Leading supporters of Memorial And Learning Centre have included Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Board of Deputies President Marie van der Zyl, Holocaust Educational Trust chief executive Karen Pollock.

Former Conservative Party chief executive Sir Mick Davis and the Community Security Trust’s Gerald Ronson had been amongst the Memorial’s earliest backers.

Supporters of the project celebrate the decision, including Holocaust survivor Lily Ebert

While Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick received death threats after he stated his overwhelming support for the Memorial and Learning Centre.

Jenrick said on Thursday that he believed the Memorial would “educate and inform future generations about the horrors of the Holocaust” and that he hoped millions of people would visit it every year.

The Secretary of State added that it would also foster a better understanding of “the British role in the tragedy – the things we did right and we did wrong”.

The project, said its supporters, would also preserve the testimony of British Holocaust survivors and concentration camp liberators, honour the Jewish victims of the Shoah, along with other victims of Nazi persecution, including Roma, LGBT and disabled people.

HET’s Pollock responded to the decision to grant permission for the project on Thursday saying: “As the Holocaust moves from living memory there could not be a more important time to build this Memorial in the shadow of Parliament, as a reminder for generations to come of what happened when antisemitism was allowed to flourish.”

Marie van der Zyl added: “I am delighted. It will be a powerful reminder of the universal values of fairness and justice that a democratic society has the responsibility to bestow upon its citizens.

“Whilst the Holocaust was a particular crime against Jewish people, the Nazis also viciously persecuted Roma, gay and disabled people, and this memorial will speak to that.”

Backers of the memorial at Westminster including Eric Pickles, Robert Jenrick MP and Ed Balls

Sir Ben Helfgott, Holocaust survivor, Olympian, and Holocaust Educational Trust Honorary Patron said: “Holocaust survivors like me came to the UK after liberation, and we made Britain our home; British forces liberated my sister at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The Holocaust is part of British history.

 “I am proud that the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre is being built, in the heart of our country, so it can be visited by millions. I know that long after I, and the other survivors, are gone, the UK will continue to remember the Holocaust and learn what happens when hatred reigned.”

Chair of the Jewish Leadership Council Jonathan Goldstein said:“Today’s announcement that the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre has been given the go ahead is a welcome one.

“This cross party supported centre at the heart of our democracy will help ensure the legacy and memory of the Holocaust is preserved.

“It will serve as a reminder of where unchecked hatred can lead.”

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s decision letter said the minister “agrees with the inspector that the location next to the Palace of Westminster would offer a powerful associative message in itself, which is consistent with that of the memorial of its immediate and wider context”.

It added: “The minister of state further agrees with the inspector’s conclusion that the location of the UKHMLC adjacent to the Palace of Westminster can rightly be considered a public benefit of great importance, meriting considerable weight in the heritage and planning balance.”

The report accepted that there would be a “modest loss of open space and functionality within” Victoria Tower Gardens but found the positives of the location outweighed the negatives in building the memorial there.

The government has also pledged that the centre, slated to open in 2024 one granted planning permission, would have free entry to all.

In was back in 2014 that the then Primer Minister David Cameron had tasked a Holocaust Commission with establishing what more Britain could do to preserve the memory of the Shoah and ensure that the lessons it teaches are never forgotten.

The UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation was formed to oversee the project – and announced the proposed site in Victoria Tower Gardens in 2016.

Former PMs including Tony Blair, Theresa May and Gordon Brown joined current PM Boris Johnson and Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer in supporting the proposal along with hundreds of MPs and peers.

But there were also widespread objections to the chosen site of the project – by local campaign groups, and by Westminster Conservative councillors.

When Mayor of London Sadiq Khan voiced support for the Memorial, Clare Annamalai, of Save Victoria Tower Gardens, said: “The mayor is the latest politician trying to bludgeon this unpopular project through despite growing misgivings within the Jewish community about its effectiveness at tackling antisemitism and the environmental concerns of The Royal Parks and UNESCO.”

The Save Victoria Tower Gardens campaign group said it would appeal against the decision to give the project the go ahead.

The lead architect of the project, David Adjaye, sparked rebuke from opponents by arguing that “disrupting” the pleasure of being in a park was key to its thinking.

Following the consultation exercise by Westminster Council, it was announced on 29 April 2019 that a revised design of the project would be submitted in response to the level of criticism of the location and design by the general public, local residents and authoritative bodies such as Royal Parks and Historic England.

A letter exchange between Westminster City Council and the UKHMF in August 2019 showed that the memorial “was heading towards an unfavourable recommendation” by planners.

Following a request by Lord Pickles and Ed Balls Esther McVey, then the Minister for State for Housing, “called in” the application on 6 November 2019.

A spokesman said at the time: “A public inquiry will be held and overseen by an independent planning inspector. The Minister will make the final decision on the application taking into account the inspector’s recommendation.”

In February 2020, Westminster City Council’s planning committee voted unanimously to reject the planning application, saying it contravenes planning rules on size, design and location.

Amongst those opposing the Memorial’s construction was terrorism expert Lord Carlile QC who branded the plan as a “self-evident terrorism risk” and a “potential ‘trophy’ site”.

Baroness Ruth Deech was also a vocal critic saying any public benefit from the proposal was “in part guesswork and in part a political decision unrelated to the benefit of the victims or their descendants.”

Commenting on Thursday’s decision Deech said:”We passionately believe that the Holocaust should be remembered, but we believe that this ill-considered and damaging proposal will do a disservice to victims and survivors, and little to enhance understanding and respect.”

Lord Austin and Bob Blackman MP, Co-Chairs of the APPG on Holocaust Memorial praised the decision saying:“This is excellent news. The Holocaust was a defining episode in history and something we all should know about and remember.”
Mike Freer, the MP for Finchley and Golders Green said the decision was “incredibly welcome news.”

He added:”In the near future the personal living testimony of the survivors will be lost.

“I hope that this memorial stands as a permanent reminder of why we must stand against antisemitism and racism in all its forms, wherever it is found.”

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