Investigating Victoria Tower Gardens

Historian and former House of Commons Clerk Dr Dorian Gerhold describes how a deep-dive into the history of Victoria Tower Gardens may have preserved it for the future.

Readers will be aware of the recent High Court ruling quashing the planning permission for the proposed Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in Victoria Tower Gardens (VTG). The ruling was based entirely on the fact that the permission breached the provisions of an Act of 1900. My own involvement in this came about in two ways; I was asked to research the history of the area which now forms the Gardens, and, separately, I had begun to investigate how a beautiful open space in central London could have been chosen for a large government building project.

First the history, which could be traced partly through maps and partly through deeds and lawsuits, almost entirely at the National Archives in Kew. The eastern part of the Gardens was embanked from the Thames just over a century ago, while the western part has a much longer history: in the north it belonged to the medieval Palace of Westminster, forming part of its gardens; in the south it belonged to Westminster Abbey. The Abbey had a water mill there by 1282, and later a slaughterhouse.

In the 16th century the Abbey was dissolved and the Palace ceased to be a royal residence. From about 1590 to 1620 the whole area was sold by the Crown and developed with houses and wharves. By the 1860s it was heavily industrial, with wharves, a flour mill, a cement works and an oil factory. The Lord Great Chamberlain regarded these as a fire threat to the new Palace of Westminster, and under an Act of 1867 those closest to the Palace were acquired by the Crown and cleared, though without much idea of what was to be done with the land – more of that later.

“I had always thought the Gardens a miraculous piece of urban planning, and was mystified that the Government had decided to build on it”

As for the Memorial decision, I had always thought the Gardens a miraculous piece of urban planning, and was mystified that the Government had decided to build on it without any coherent explanation of how and why the site had been chosen. As the campaigners have put it, ‘right idea, wrong place’. I submitted freedom of information requests to the relevant Department and Royal Parks, asking mainly for dates. That gave me my first lesson in FOI, as the Department took seven months to answer, and withheld most of the information. Unfortunately, the Information Commissioner’s Office fails to enforce the time limits for FOI responses. Royal Parks was somewhat more helpful. By the time I received these answers I was in contact with other VTG campaigners, including London Parks and Gardens.

Photo: Sally Prothero (2017)

A later FOI request for key passages in the minutes of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, which had recommended the site, was rejected by the Department, the Information Commissioner and the Lower and Upper Information Tribunals. This was mainly on the spurious ground that sites discussed in 2015-16, which in practice were no longer available or had been firmly rejected, might have to be considered again if planning permission was refused, and that disclosure would therefore prejudice decision-making. The Department rejected my most recent request about allowance for optimism bias in the costings by using the exemption that the information was already accessible, and referring me to a parliamentary answer that categorically refused to provide the same information! It is a fine example of the Government’s contempt for the public’s right to information. In general, the FOI Act has been of limited value in the campaign to save VTG.

Written parliamentary answers have proved more useful, mainly for eliciting basic factual information, They operate on a much faster timetable – days rather than months and years – and can be followed up. The snag is that, unlike FOI requests, you need to find a Member of Parliament willing to table them for you. It also helps to know the rules for questions, of which the most important is that you must be seeking information or pressing for action, not requesting opinions or making an argument. Here I had the advantage of having spent four years as a House of Commons Clerk in the Table Office, which ensures that the rules for questions are observed but also helps MPs to get around them. I had learnt that questioners needed to be persistent in following up inadequate answers, and this time I found that the formulation ‘for what reason the answer did not provide the information requested about X’ was unexpectedly productive. Note the neutral wording; even the word ‘why’ is frowned on!

One particularly useful answer included a copy of the letter sent by Lord Feldman in 2015 in which VTG was first suggested to a government minister as a possible location. Another provided the wording of the fateful recommendation of 2016, revealing that it was more tentative – ‘in principle’ than had been disclosed. But the most valuable result of the parliamentary answers was that it became possible to compile a chronology of the decision-making. This sounds dull, but it revealed a deeply flawed process. There had been a professional site search, but at the same time several members of the Foundation independently investigated the possibility of using VTG. The professional searchers reported on 11 January 2016, VTG was sprung on the Foundation’s members on 13 January and immediately agreed ‘in principle’, and the Prime Minister announced the intended location on 27 January. The timescale alone showed that there was no due diligence. A consequence of revealing this was that at the planning inquiry the Foundation’s co-chairs were forced to justify the way the decision had been taken, memorably describing it as a ‘moment of genius’, and to defend the fact that the chosen site did not meet the specification.

Among the most important information about any public open space is how it came into being and what conditions were imposed on its use at the time. The Government failed to investigate this, and so did I at first. There were no covenants in the land register, and the manner in which VTG had been created was obscure. Eventually I examined a file of papers at London Metropolitan Archives relating to the London County Council (Improvements) Act 1900 that provided the answers. The controversy over what to do with the land acquired under the 1867 Act had been resolved when the newspaper seller W.H. Smith offered £1000 for it to be converted into a public garden, now the northern part of VTG. Parliament had provided the remaining £2400 and the garden opened in 1881. Importantly, the Government had promised Smith that the land would be maintained as an open space.

In 1898 a private consortium sought an Act to acquire and develop a large area around Millbank and to rebuild the wharves on what is part of VTG. This was rejected by the House of Commons, partly because it did not turn the land by the river into an open space. London County Council stepped in with its own proposal, which would widen Millbank and also extend the existing open space, but it needed some financial help from the Government, together with a small corner of VTG for its chosen alignment of Millbank. The crucial document in the file was a letter from the First Commissioner of Works, the registered owner of VTG, stating that, because of the promise made to Smith, the condition for giving up part of the existing garden was that the land between the widened Millbank and the river become and remain an open space, and that this must be written into the Bill. He also insisted that the new land be transferred by the LCC to him, so that the enlarged Gardens could be managed as a whole.

Next I had to find a copy of the 1900 Act, which did indeed say that the new land should be ‘laid out and maintained… for use as a garden open to the public and as an integral part of the existing Victoria Tower Garden’. This was a far more emphatic result than I had hoped for. When London government was reorganised in 1965 and most of the 1900 Act was repealed, the section relating to VTG was kept, indicating its continuing effect.

Bizarrely, when the 1900 Act was brought to the Government’s attention, it insisted that the Act did not affect its plan to build on a great part of the new land. It claimed that the provisions of the Act had been fully implemented, that the First Commissioner of Works had been trusted with the future of the land, and that his successor (a government department) could therefore do what it wished with it.

For the judicial review, I went back to the LCC’s proceedings of 1899-1900, which are in large printed volumes with indexes, copied all the relevant committee reports and presented them, together with relevant proceedings of Parliament and Westminster’s local government, as evidence. They made abundantly clear that creating a permanent open space that was not to be built on was central to the negotiations at the time.

The words of an Act usually have to be interpreted as they stand, without considering what its promoters intended. Nevertheless, having concluded that the words in the Act meant exactly what they said, and therefore that the proposed building was unlawful, the judge quoted extensively from the proceedings of 1899-1900 to provide confirmation of her conclusion.

The Government has been refused leave to appeal, but could seek to repeal what remains of the 1900 Act. The future of VTG remains uncertain. But the case shows the value of historical research in campaigning to prevent the destruction of a public open space.

Further information
The history of the site, VTG itself and the decision on the Memorial is set out in Dorian’s book Victoria Tower Gardens, available from the Thorney Island Society – £15 including postage.