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

websiteThe 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.

The Jewish Chronicle writes:

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.

…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.’ …

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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