Memorials and public parks
In November 2020, a planning inquiry considered the merits of siting a UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre within Victoria Tower Gardens, the Grade II registered public park on Millbank, adjacent to the Palace of Westminster. The case exemplifies important themes affecting many parks, including memorialisation; assessing amenity value; the protection of heritage; and the tensions between these themes – and the challenges of maintenance and running costs.
This year’s lockdown saw a major spike in visitor numbers to public parks as all other forms of recreation were closed down. Suddenly they were front page news, and the secretary of state insisted: ‘People need parks. That’s why I have made it clear to councils that all parks must remain open.’ 1 It was great to see parks fully recognised as essential services, but less than great to see no additional funding channelled into the cost of keeping them open.
2020 has dramatically illustrated the failure of government policy for park funding. Since 2010, the budgets of local authorities responsible for the upkeep of the vast majority of public parks have been relentlessly cut: many parks departments have seen reductions of 60 per cent or more in their annual budgets. The cost of making parks Covid-secure, and of the additional patrols and litter-collection, has torpedoed parks budgets, especially in the most deprived urban areas of the country, where use was heaviest. The double-whammy is that at the same time revenue completely evaporated from events, activities and sports, on which park services have become increasingly dependent. Parks maintenance is a non-statutory local service, and budgets are almost certain to be cut further as councils struggle with the ongoing impact of Covid-19.  Putting new monuments into parks creates features needing additional maintenance costs.
Other contested memorials
The Holocaust Memorial proposal was not the only public memorial to hit the headlines in 2020. Two statues were at the centre of debate about memorialisation in public space: the tearing down of the Colston statue in Bristol as part of Black Lives Matter protests in June; and the erection of the Mary Wollstonecraft statue at Newington Green by Maggi Hambling in November.
In the case of the Edward Colston memorial, created through public subscription and erected 174 years after his death, its association with the slave trade had long caused resentment in the city. In 2018, the council agreed to contextualise the memorial by changing its plaque to include mention of Colston’s slave-trading activities, but final wording was never agreed.  Then, during the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in the wake of the US police-killing of George Floyd, the statue was pulled down in a dramatic demonstration of public outrage. It was retrieved in the following days and is now in storage, with plans for its future display in the context of Bristol’s BLM protests.
Following a 10-year campaign which raised £143,000, the world’s only memorial statue to Mary Wollstonecraft was unveiled at Newington Green, north London. The chosen location was justified by its proximity to where Mary Wollstonecraft had lived. Public discussion of the memorial had focused almost entirely on the appropriateness of the statue itself.  Less consideration has been given to the use of a historic public garden in a conservation area, protected under the London Squares Preservation Act 1931.  After just a month the turf around the statue was badly degraded, but the public funds raised to pay for the statue have not allowed for any contribution towards maintenance costs, which fall to the local authority. It may be necessary to create a paved area to form an appropriate setting to the new monument, even though a pre-existing area of hard-standing at the site could have been used, avoiding further erosion of the park’s environmental value and historic integrity.
Victoria Tower Gardens provide the usual amenity values of a public park in a dense urban environment. Loved by dog-walkers, tourists and office workers, they include a recently designed children’s play area, flat space for running around or picnicking, and a number of existing memorials.
The memorials in this park mark a variety of nationally significant parliamentary events. These include the Burghers of Calais, the Buxton Memorial (celebrating the parliamentarians who led the movement to abolish slavery), and the Emmeline Pankhurst statue (commemorating the successful campaign for female suffrage). In a way that is typical of memorials in public parks, they are spaciously sited minor occurrences within the overall landscape, with a meaning that is revealed only by careful reading of the historic inscriptions attached.
The Holocaust Memorial with its subterranean Learning Centre is on an entirely different scale, and would have an entirely different relationship to the space. Planned to occupy 26 per cent of the park, the space would become subsidiary to this gigantic structure – an enormous cuckoo in the nest.
Planning policy is seemingly silent on how to weigh up the public benefits of maintaining the existing amenity values of a public park against the advantages of creating a new memorial of national (and some argue international) importance. Much of the discussion at the public inquiry revolved around the calibration of harm and at what precise point it reaches the threshold of being substantial. The authors despaired of Historic England’s inability to respond adequately to the issues raised here: the idea of damage to space, not just to fabric, damage to how a place is used and not just to what it contains, and their inability to describe this scheme for what it truly is, the disembowelling of a registered public park, not only home to listed monuments, but also the setting of one of the world’s most famous buildings designated a world heritage site.
The Holocaust Memorial’s proposed siting, so close to the Palace of Westminster, is for supporters precisely the point – to align the UK Parliament with commemoration of the holocaust. Objectors contend that the scheme’s large proportions, as well as jeopardising the future health of the historic trees, would ruin the historic setting of the palace and dwarf the pre-existing memorials.
While planning policy legislates for protection of heritage assets, this is set against other policy objectives around tourism, increased visitor numbers and educational opportunities. On current forecasts, constructing the proposal will cost the public purse in excess of £75 million, before taking account of running costs, which do not form part of planning considerations.
The planning inspector’s report and recommendations are due by 30 April 2021. At present, a government minister will be the final arbiter of a scheme proposed and sponsored by his own department, an arrangement the London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust is challenging separately.
Urban parks have always provided an appealing location for those wishing to create public memorials, and many parks contain memorials, including war memorials, portrait statues and other sculptures, fountains, seats, shelters and bandstands. 
Memorials have often been the focus of public debate and protest. During the first world war, several towns and cities rejected the government gift of commemorative cannon or tanks, in one case protesters hauling the newly delivered cannon into the park lake. A statue of Napoleon erected in a park in Stockport after the Crimean War was vandalised immediately after it was erected. The pagoda in Nottingham Arboretum was objected to by critics of the Opium Wars it commemorated. The statue of Samuel Cunliffe Lister in Lister Park Bradford was the subject of years of opposition as a result of his notoriously harsh treatment of his mill-workers. A statue of Disraeli in Queen’s Park Bolton was hotly resisted by the town’s Liberals. Commemoration of local worthies and events is generally political and therefore contentious.
We suggest that a guiding principle should be that decisions over any proposed memorial must consider how it will complement and enhance the predominant functions of a park. The use of nature for solace after traumatic events can be sympathetic to urban parks and greenspaces. To commemorate those that have died as a result of Covid-19, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan announced 33 cherry trees (to symbolise the London boroughs) would be planted in 2021 in a ring at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, with support from the National Trust.
At Victoria Tower Gardens, the proposed building is not only out of scale with the site, but it will also introduce a quite different use to the park. Where at present children play and adults idly sit or stroll, the Learning Centre will bring crowds by the coachload for the single purpose of an educational visit. It is time to put a stop to this project which will destroy a historic landscape, create an increased financial burden for upkeep, and take away vital public greenspace in the heart of the capital.
-  www.gov.uk/government/speeches/communities-secretaryrobert-jenrick-oncovid-19-response-18-april-2020
-  The Perambulator (author), ‘Attacking the lungs: Covid and the state of parks,’ The London Gardener, Journal of the London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust, Vol 24, 2020
-  Farrer, Martin (2020) ‘Who was Edward Colston…?’ The Guardian Online, 8 June
-  Brown, Mark (2020) ‘Mary Wollstonecraft statue, one of 2020s most polarising artworks’, The Guardian Online, 25
-  The London Gardens Trust Inventory https://londongardenstrust.org/conservation/inventory/site-record/?ID=ISL056&sitename=Newington+Green
-  See Hazel Conway (1990) People’s Parks: the design and development of Victorian parks in Britain, Cambridge University Press.
David Lambert is director of the Parks Agency, a consultancy specialising in public parks, and a member of the conservation committee at the Gardens Trust. The Gardens Trust plays a statutory role in the planning process. David Lambert spoke as an interested party on behalf of the Gardens Trust at the recent planning inquiry into the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre.
Helen Monger is director of the London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust, a charity affiliated to the Gardens Trust, seeking to limit the impact of planning applications on the historic significance of green spaces across the capital. The trust was a Rule 6 party in the Victoria Tower Gardens planning inquiry. To support the ongoing campaign you can donate at https://londongardenstrust.org/support/donate/
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