In the midst of an unprecedented peacetime national emergency, the UK government is using valuable parliamentary time proposing a change in the law so that anyone seeking to remove or alter a statue, monument or plaque must first seek planning permission. Far from making decisions of this kind more democratic, this law removes agency from local communities to make decisions about the representation of their own heritage.
Robert Jenrick, secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, told parliament that he intends to take a personally interventionist approach to these decisions and tighten planning rules:
I would like to make clear that, as the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, I have wide discretion to “call in” planning applications or recover appeals for my own determination, not least because of the controversy attached to such decisions. I will not hesitate to use those powers in relation to applications and appeals involving historic statues, plaques, memorials or monuments where I consider such action is necessary to reflect the Government’s planning policies as set out above.
Writing in The Telegraph, the minister cited various examples to demonstrate the need for this law, none of which are based in reality.
Jenrick alleges that totemic figures of national mythology are under attack, writing that it is “absurd and shameful” that Winston Churchill’s statue would be “questioned”. The acts of vandalism against his statue in Westminster and the Cenotaph during the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests have become highly emotive touchstones, useful in conjuring the image of a baying mob seeking to tear down monuments across the country. To put them in a more objective context, however, they were, in fact, criminal acts by a few individuals among tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators.
Those criminal acts and the police response to them would not fall under the jurisdiction of the law Jenrick is proposing, so to deploy the example in this context is spurious, if not inflammatory. Nor is there any serious suggestion that Churchill’s Westminster statue will be removed.
What’s more, a further examination of cases on the ground shows that local authorities have generally been measured and cautious when debates arise about these monuments.
Take the example of Lord Nelson, another figure Jenrick claims is not “safe from the revisionist purge” because Lambeth council has suggested renaming a local street currently called Nelson’s Row. A closer look at the council’s public consultation shows, however, that this again is an emotive sleight of hand on the minister’s part: no one actually knows for sure who the road is named after, and even if it were named for Lord Nelson, it is considered “low priority” by the council and is unlikely to be renamed any time soon.
Elsewhere, institutions associated with Nelson have decided to retain his name. There is no official suggestion of any alteration to his monument in Trafalgar Square.
The minister’s assertion that “due process has been overridden” is not therefore supported by any evidence he offers.
Plymouth has seen the only significant legal challenge in the UK to recent changes. There, a resident launched a legal appeal against the removal of slave trader John Hawkins’ name from a city square. This was on the grounds that there was no “proper consultation”. The claim was rejected as due process clearly had been followed, further demonstrating that there is little need for the new law. Also rejected in court was the resident’s preposterous claim that the new name, that of black footballer Jack Leslie, was not appropriate because it was “racist”.
In Leeds, meanwhile, following an act of vandalism the council commissioned a report and public consultation taking exactly the type of considered and responsible approach Jenrick appears to support. It ultimately recommended that a single frieze should be given greater context with a plaque explaining its content. Rather than removing statues, it proposed increasing representation with new public artworks and renewed work on the city’s public heritage sites.
In requiring full planning permission, thus allowing appeals to the minister, any aggrieved individual can hold up decisions about public spaces, even if they have been made via democratic processes. Even if they don’t win their case, they can create additional costs on councils and the courts at a time of great financial pressure.
The appeal process also offers the current and any future minister, as well as local MPs or councillors, an opportunity to further weaponise heritage by intervening whenever they feel it suits their political aims. The focus of these interventions is likely to be on signalling to an electoral base rather than on encouraging broad engagement and representation of the democratic will of local communities.
As Jenrick correctly explains in his article, statues in the UK were erected in the first place “by public subscription, by a borough, village or a parish”. By his own implication, councils, community groups and institutions, therefore, have the power to re-evaluate their heritage sites without central government interference.
As consultations take place across the country, the real challenge is that politicians of all stripes embed broad engagement across all communities on a permanent basis, not just while popular pressure remains high.
This law will not further empower councils to do that. Instead it politicises, divides, and it makes it harder for councils to make democratic decisions about how heritage is represented in public spaces.