By Rosie Dawson
A planning inquiry in London has been hearing evidence on whether Victoria Tower Gardens in central London is the appropriate site for a Holocaust memorial and visitor centre. One rabbi has told the inquiry that there should be no new memorial at all.
The proposal for a memorial came from David Cameron, then prime minister, in January 2013. A number of London sites were considered, including the Imperial War Museum and Potters Fields Park, but these were rejected by the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, a government advisory body, which suggested Victoria Tower Gardens. An international competition to design the memorial was won by Adjaye Associates and Ron Arad in October 2017.
The choice of site has proved controversial from the start. An event launching the architects’ design was picketed by protesters holding banners saying “Right idea, wrong place”. While welcoming the memorial in principle, the Royal Parks and the Gardens Trust have opposed the plans. The Gardens Trust says the memorial would fundamentally change the character of the gardens, diminishing the impact of other historical monuments on the site, and causing potential damage to plane trees.
Westminster City Council unanimously rejected the plans in February, although the power to make the final decision about them had already been taken out of its hands by the government.
Lord Carlile QC told a planning inquiry this week that a site so near to the seat of government made the proposed memorial a “trophy target” for terrorists. Lord Carlile, a former independent reviewer on terrorism, said in a written statement: “From my extensive experience of observing, analysing and discussing terrorism issues with frontline practitioners, I have absolutely no doubt that the proposed site raises a clear — indeed self-evident — terrorism risk. I give this warning with regret, but with total conviction. This would be a threat to the public, and also a potential threat to parliament.”
The memorial and its location has broad cross-party support from MPs and peers. The Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told the Jewish Chronicle that it was disappointing that the plans had not yet been approved.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews is wholehearted in its support for the location, with its president, Marie van der Zyl, calling it “poignant”.
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, former senior rabbi to Reform Judaism, said: “I think it’s a beautiful location and very appropriate for the message of justice and democracy. There are very legitimate questions about size and architecture but I believe the place is 100 per cent right.”
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis sits on the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation which supports the choice of Victoria Tower Gardens.
Opposition to the location has also come from 42 academics who argued that the choice of a Westminster location risked suggesting that Britain saved the Jews from the Holocaust.
Rabbi Jonathan Romain, of Maidenhead synagogue, told the inquiry that London already had fitting memorials to the Holocaust in Hyde Park and in the Holocaust wing of the Imperial War Museum. The estimated £100m cost of the memorial would be better spent on Holocaust education more broadly. He told the Religion Media Centre that, while he was not claiming to speak for all Jews, he was not a lone voice in the wilderness.