Government accused of trying to 'rig' public consultation on Westminster Holocaust Memorial plans

Thousands of overwhelmingly positive comments were suddenly submitted through a company that received £118,000 to 'support public engagement'


The Government has been accused of trying to "rig" the public consultation on plans to build a Holocaust memorial Centre in Westminster, after a private company - hired to help "public engagement" - oversaw a sudden huge surge in supportive comments online.

Responding to a written question in parliament, Heather Wheeler, a junior minister in the Communities Department, confirmed last week that £118,000 had been given to Big Ideas to help "public engagement" over the plans.

The plans would see a memorial and learning centre built in Victoria Tower Gardens, which is next to parliament. While the scheme has won broad political support, it has faced opposition from those saying it will damage the park.

Ms Wheeler said Big Ideas, which says it specialises in "community engagement", was "supporting public engagement, drawing especially on their experience in reaching groups whose voice is often not heard by decision-makers”.

But opponents of the scheme said the Government was "paying consultants to rig its own planning application" when they noticed a huge surge in supportive comments submitted to the plans online - from 144 in four months to 2,391 in two weeks. 

On May 9, the council's director of place shaping and town planning, Deirdra Armsby, told colleagues by email that Big Ideas “have been carrying out grassroots community engagement in Westminster, aimed at encouraging people who had not shared their views on the Holocaust Memorial plans to contribute to the planning process.

These included holding “outreach events” where “neutral information” about plans for the memorial was provided and points of view gathered.

Participants were then “offered an opportunity to have the Big Ideas Co. pass on their opinions to WCC… Most of these contributors are not Westminster residents.”

Ms Armsby said that so far: “Big Ideas had submitted 21 support comments and 8 objection comments, with the name and address of each contributor and an email address from the Big Ideas Co, so that we can tell they have come from that route.”

However, research suggests there was a dramatic shift in the nature of comments received by the public consultation after the email.

From January 8, when the public consultation opened, until May 13, the council website received 144 comments supporting the application and 866 comments opposing it.

But between May 14 and May 29, the website received a further 2,391 comments supporting the application, with just 92 opposing. The number of supportive comments rose from an average of one to 150 per day.

Clare Annamalai, of the Save Victoria Tower Gardens campaign, said: “The increasing desperation of the Government has now led it to use taxpayers' money to create a veneer of support for this unpopular project.

"However noble the purpose, trying to squeeze a big museum into a tiny park is never going to work.”

Prominent politicians from across both the Conservative and Labour parties have expressed support for the establishment of a Holocaust Memorial at the site, with outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May having described it as "a sacred, national mission".

However, a cross-party group of Jewish peers have also spoken out against the memorial being built in that location and it has triggered opposition from heritage and environment groups because of its impact on the park.

Speaking to the JC, Big Ideas chief executive Virginia Crompton confirmed that the company had received “thousands” of responses from its events, which it was submitting to the website.

“We are not only submitting positive comments, but [we are submitting] any comments that we receive, in whatever form they are,” she said.

“The vast majority are supportive. That explains the big shift in numbers on the portal, because we’ve been feeding those in – and they’re still coming. It’s got a life of its own.”

She said the comments had been gathered via “outreach” through partners “who are stakeholders in the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre”, such as the 45 Aid Society, the Board of Deputies, and the Holocaust Education Trust.”

She said the company had worked on raising awareness of the Holocaust memorial since January.

She said: “We are telling everyone about the portal and how they can use the portal – that’s Westminster’s planning portal, it’s the best place to go for comment.

“When organisations send Big Ideas the comments, they provide names and addresses. If someone wants to submit by us, we ask them to confirm that they haven’t already submitted a comment to the portal.”

When asked about the claim of "rigging" the consultation, she said Big Ideas was trying to “support access to accurate information and opportunity to comment".

“I think it’s right that people have a chance to comment. We’re supporting all comments and making people aware of it. I’m aware of local concerns that have been clearly expressed – there’s also a national memorial – and it’s fine for people to express their views.”

The Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government declined to comment, referring the JC back to Ms Wheeler's response to the written question.

Westminster Council said it could not "express support or opposition to live planning applications".

“We know there are strong feelings on both sides of this application and it will  be considered in the same way we would any other sensitive scheme," a spokesperson said.

“ We have processes in place for handling, and giving the appropriate weight to, organised campaigns. This scheme will be considered on its merits and in line with council policy at a future planning committee.”

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