Suppose the government wanted a culture war and nobody came? The law and policy of “protecting” statues and other monuments

18th January 2021

Another day, another cabinet minister in the United Kingdom seeking to provoke a culture war.

This time it is the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government who – notwithstanding his explicit cabinet-level responsibility for ‘communities’ – is soliciting political support in return for promoting a populist and divisive policy.

You may wonder what a minister in charge of such a department could find in that ministerial portfolio that would ‘play well’ and ‘own the libs’, but this minister has found one.

Statues.

In respect of law and policy, the two key paragraphs of the column are:

“Following in that tradition, I am changing the law to protect historic monuments and ensure we don’t repeat the errors of previous generations. Proper process will now be required. Any decisions to remove these heritage assets will require planning permission and councils will need to do so in accordance with their constitution, after consultation with the local community.

“Where that does not happen, I will not hesitate to use my powers as Secretary of State in relation to applications and appeals involving historic monuments where such action is necessary to reflect the Government’s planning policies. Our view will be set out in law, that such monuments are almost always best explained and contextualised, not taken and hidden away. More details will be set out in Parliament tomorrow.”

*

One would think that in the midst of a pandemic and the effects of Brexit, there would be more important things for any secretary of state to do.

And given the ongoing strains on local government and the problems with housing, there must be more important things for this cabinet minister to be doing with scarce departmental resources and limited parliamentary time.

But no.

Statues.

*

But even if for some political reason for this to be a policy priority, the proposal makes no sense.

Statues are already protected by law.

First, they are protected in respect of theft and damage by the general law of the land, as can be shown with the prosecutions of those who put the statue of a slave trader into Bristol harbour.

Nothing in the announced proposals goes any further than the direct protections afforded by the criminal law.

Yet the article by the cabinet minister was uncritically promoted on the BBC and on social media as offering protection to statues from ‘baying mobs’:

One wonders if those at the BBC and elsewhere had actually read the secretary of state’s article, for there is nothing in the piece that goes to anything that would counter a mob, baying or otherwise.

The proposals are merely about adjusting the planning regime – presumably to make the lawful removal of such statues subject to even more conditions.

*

Which brings us to the second reason for the pointlessness of this proposal.

Most statues of any note are already protected as listed buildings and so are subject to additional conditions in respect of their removal or modification.

Take for example, that statue of the Bristol slave trader.

As Professor Antonia Layard sets out in this fascinating and interesting article:

“In 1977, the statue was listed as a grade II building (No. 1202137). This is the lowest category of listing, identifying it as a building “of special interest, justifying every effort to preserve them” […]

“Once listed, s7 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 imposes restrictions on works, requiring authorisation to alter, extend or demolish the listed building if this would affect its character as a building of special architectural or historic interest. Alteration, extension or demolition (s8) can all happen with consent but there is no express provision (perhaps inevitably) for moving a sculpture. When deciding whether to grant consent for a change, the Secretary State (or planning inspectors acting on his behalf), the Secretary of State or anyone acting on his behalf must have special regard to the desirability of preserving listed buildings, their setting or any special architectural or historical features they possess before making a consent order (s26F P(LBCA)A 1990).”

The new proposals of the secretary of the state appear to go no further than powers that they already have in respect of listed buildings, including changing their setting.

The secretary of state will know this, or should know this – and their department will certainly know this, as it is the department responsible for considering applications for such consents.

There is an argument, as Professor Layard’s article sets out persuasively, that statues should not be under the same conservation regime as other structures, as there may be different considerations for removal of a statue of, say, a notorious figure than for a house.

But that is certainly not the argument being put forward by the secretary of state.

*

If promoting such a proposal may be seen as a waste of time by a secretary of state, it may equally seem a waste of time for a blog such as this to spend time setting out the legal and policy reasons why such a proposal is daft and unnecessary.

Don’t feed the trolls, and so on, even when the troll is a secretary of state hoodwinking the BBC and others.

But it is still important that such proposals are patiently examined on their merits and shown to be wanting – as a reminder and a register to the rest of us that these things are not normal nor appropriate.

What is a waste of time is to just meet provocation with outrage, to join in as a combatant in a culture war.

And eventually there may be a realisation that there is no longer political merit is promoting such divisive populist policies – and indeed, in early 2021, the approach here of the secretary of state seems rather old hat and 2016-ish,

Suppose the government wanted a culture war and nobody came.

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32 thoughts on “Suppose the government wanted a culture war and nobody came? The law and policy of “protecting” statues and other monuments”

  1. In cases where the statue is not currently protected by listing, is there a difference between “remove” and “move”? Could a council keep the statue but put it somewhere more discrete, or where its context could be better explained?

    And is there a definition of what constitutes an “historic monument”. Does any old memorial count? What about a blue plaque?

  2. Perhaps this is designed to distract from the revelations about Richard Drax, MP? If we’re squabbling about laws around statues, we’re not examining how we feel about a present MP living off the spoils of slavery?

    Equally disturbing here is the biddability of the BBC to amplify the ‘baying mobs’ metaphor. You lie down with dogs, you get up with flees.

    1. We are all living off the spoils of slavery. The reality of modern society is that it could only have existed because of what came before it. Maybe in some alternative reality there was a succession of societies which all eschewed slavery, so they have a modern society which owes nothing to it, but that is not the reality in which we live.

      It has been said that Nature is red in tooth and claw: it’s not clear than humanity is that nice.

      Be grateful to the generations of slaves who helped create our society. Through luck you have ended up in an age where you were unlikely to have been enslaved, but don’t be so certain that if you had lived in a different age and had the chance that you would not have been as keen a slave master as any other.

  3. The Minister promises to “set out in law, that such monuments are almost always best explained and contextualised, not taken and hidden away”.

    Another law. (And I like the ‘almost always’).

    Thank you for another informative and thoughtful piece.

  4. Thanks once again for a well-argued piece. Jenrick, friend of developers and scourge of local democracy (here in Oxfordshire anyway, where our authorities aren’t permitted to review our local plans), is indeed trolling us all.

    He spends most of his time saying there should be fewer obstructions to developers and here is is claiming to add to the planning burden to achieve nothing other than some publicity.

    I am also somewhat surprised that he says “I am changing the law…..” Last time I checked, it was Parliament that had the power to do that, rather than a government minister. Even using the royal prerogative powers, it isn’t normal to claim that “I am changing the law”. This bunch of charlatans don’t even go through the polite pretences required in our odd political system.

    1. Excellent point.

      “I am changing the law.” Says it all.

      A government with delusions of adequacy – and none more deluded that Mr Jenrick.

  5. Manifestly designed, I think (a) to pander to core Tory support, and (b) to distract from the government’s significant failures of policy in dealing with the pandemic, and with Brexit. Presumably, the “baying mob” will not concern itself with the niceties of obtaining planning permission/listed building consent. I believe the article suggests that Mr Jenrick will be concerning himself with proposals to change street names as well, for fear that “woke leftie councils” will be up to no good in that area of significant national policy concern?

  6. What a great post. Reducing the pernicious 2016-ish polarisation may be more important for the health of our democracy than who wins which argument over policy. And this calm way of ridiculing the provocations may indeed be the best way to go about them more generally.

  7. “[…] it may equally seem a waste of time for a blog such as this to spend time setting out the legal and policy reasons why such a proposal is daft and unnecessary.”
    On the contrary. This is yet another example from DAG of how an informative and legally based piece brillianty and sarcastically once again shouts out that the king has no clothes.

  8. Let us hope, as seems likely, that in 2024 the great nonentity that is Robert Jenrick is no longer a Secretary of State – and that no one even remembers that he ever was.

  9. Jenrick seems only to be concerned by the actions of demonstrators and similar.

    The ‘accidental’ removal or modification of listed structures by property developers and construction companies is clearly not a concern for him.

    The Birmingham Battery and Metal Company was founded in 1836 with a factory in Digbeth, Birmingham.

    By 1885, the company possessed well equipped rolling and tube mills, both at Digbeth and in South Birmingham at Selly Oak.

    The company fell into difficulties in the 1980s and closure became inevitable. The Selly Oak site was redeveloped as the Battery Retail Park.

    What happened in 2009 during the redevelopment of the site seems open to dispute. I recall tales of a JCB driver putting his vehicle into reverse thus weakening a grade II listed structure, built in 1871, that had been used as offices. Why was the vehicle so close to the building?

    Sainsbury’s contractors began to demolish the building in June 2009. Sainsbury’s in response to local protests about the demolition said that it did not want to demolish the building, but it had been deemed unsafe and had to come down.

    A spokesman said, “It is with regret that Sainsbury’s has had to take the decision to demolish the former battery building in Selly Oak.

    The building is structurally unsafe and potentially a health and safety risk and as a responsible landowner Sainsbury’s has decided to clear the site.

    The property’s roof timbers and parts of the ceiling had collapsed, as had internal staircases and walls.

    As a result, emergency services are not able to safely gain access.”

    Safely gain access to a building not in use and, if the rumours were true had been weakened by an accident, caused by someone working on site.

    Sainbsbury’s had submitted plans to incorporate the building into new offices proposed for the site.

    The plans had yet to receive approval when their contractor started to take the building down.

    If Jenrick wanted to do something positive in this area of policy then a thorough review of the listing process, the protection provided by a listing, remedies when damage occurs etc would not come amiss.

    And such a review would, surely, consider Professor Layard’s point that statues should not be under the same conservation regime as other structures. I suspect other experts might have similar views regarding their areas of expertise.

    Personally, I think the matter of local listing needs review, given it provides no additional planning controls and I am not sure where facadism comes into planning law in this area.

    Plenty of meat for a genuine, inclusive review.

    https://historicengland.org.uk/advice/hpg/has/locallylistedhas/

  10. Isn’t this part of a common Tory tactic to announce “new laws” that do not go further than existing laws that they choose not to prioritise in order that they can claim to be doing something?

    Generates newspaper headlines which appears to be what the government is maximising these days.

    1. Politicians’ logic’, and to be fair, columnists’ logic, that of many who are vox popped and similar.

      1. We must do something.

      2. This is something.

      3. Therefore, we must do this.

      The Dangerous Dogs’ Act gave the impression of action, but children, very often young children, are still mauled badly, if not to death, by, in some cases, the family pet.

      The obvious answer is to make owning dogs, illegal.

      Any measure less than that allows for risk to life and limb.

      Voters would not accept a draconian law to minimise, almost to zero the risk of a child being maimed or killed by a dog.

      Ergo a degree of risk is acceptable to life and limb, though possibly not perceived by many to be just that, to allow us to continue owning a canine friend.

      Banning the ownership of certain types of dog does not address the situation in which a family pet, used to being the centre of attention, if not the leader of the pack, an alpha dog, reacts violently to being demoted by a new arrival, like a baby.

      One minute you are in the bosom of the family, the next you are just AN Other member of it.

      An obvious answer would be for dog owners to be better trained, less so their dogs (I’ll be in trouble with someone who’s shown at Cruft’s for saying otherwise!), and for those with young families to forgo the ownership of a dog during the early years of their offspring.

      And, do not, obviously, get a dog, too boisterous for you to handle.

      You will not be surprised to learn, I suspect, that this approach to legislation is covered in an episode of Yes, Prime Minister?

      1. Unfortunately unless a lot of breeds are trained to respect you as the alpha dog they can turn on a sixpence when near livestock aswell. Training classes too often rely on rewards to embed recall.
        I get a lot of judgement for very loudly demanding my small Jack Russell complies.

  11. “Suppose the government wanted a culture war and nobody came.”

    Jenrick might be banking on the idea that, at the very least, a whole bunch of people would turn up to *defend* statues like Colston’s – and hence vote Tory – even if nobody else bothered
    to turn up. A large part of the print and broadcast media would amplify his message to help ensure this was the case (hence the column) for the same reason. The so-called ‘woke brigade’ just have to invoked to both justify the proposals, create the response and get the ‘culture war’ result Jenrick is seeking: it’s a way of holding on to supporters.

  12. “I am changing the law to do what is does already, but with knobs on, to send a dog whistle to my little Englander supporters (including those whose controversial planning schemes I have approved illegally).”

    The very reason that that statue of Edward Colston was there to be toppled, is because the usual bureaucratic processes to remove it (as most people of Bristol seem to have wished) or (perhaps better) to add information explaining who he was and what he did, and why the late Victorians erected a statue nearly 200 years after his death, were stymied by the sort of person who would object to recontextualising the statue of a slave trader (and philanthropist). You don’t fix that by making the process more difficult.

    Some might argue rather convincingly that it is easier to contextualise the past in the museum than by erecting a public sculpture (we have many rather prominent statues to generals in colonial wars, such as those who set up concentration camps in the Boer War, where thousands of women and children died: the past is complex).

    What is this “new law” meant to do to defeat a “baying mob”? Was ever a “baying mob” calmed by the reading of a riot act? “Guys – let’s put the statute back – he’s got his *legislation* out and he’s not afraid to use it.” Sheesh.

    1. When the lunatics take over the asylum all you get is Don Quixote tilting at windmills. What a sorry state of affairs when so much more needs to be done in these trying times. Sadly not one member of the cabinet will ever say “The emperor has no clothes!”
      Many thanks for the email blog, kind regards, Ian

  13. Had this law been in place some 18 years or so ago then the toe rags, three youths, aged 16, 13 and 14, who set fire to the “Forward” statue in front of Birmingham’s Repertory Theatre on Centenary Square would have been defended against its application by the very folk to whom Jenrick is pitching.

    https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/gallery/raymond-masons-forward-statue-centenary-17679033

    Joe and Josephine Soap, below the line, on the Birmingham Evening Mail website were posting comments like, “Good on yer, our kid!” in response to an act of arson.

    The statue was a piece of challenging, accessible art, that celebrated those folk, generations of Joes, Josephines, Momotas and Mohammeds, lost to time, who actually built Birmingham. It was on a base barely a few inches high and never wholly faded into the background, but it was clearly unacceptable to a section of society who only noticed the near by trio of Boulton, Watt and Murdoch on a high plinth, when the Council said they were going to move it.

    In the end, the case against the youths was dropped.

    The CPS said in a statement the defendant, the 16 year old, was playing with matches and had no intention of setting fire to the statue. The statement said he gave no thought to the risk, which was not obvious to him, and therefore there was insufficient evidence the youth believed the statue would catch fire.

    “I hadn’t realised that putting a crow bar under the base of the statue might cause it to topple over, M’Lud.”

    Surely got to be worth a try?

    Incidentally, “GRP (glass reinforced plastic), of which the statue was made, is normally relatively resistant to minor damage and it would take a concerted effort to do anything more serious. The resin is classified as fire retarding, and will only burn as long as a flame is applied to its surface, that is to say, if an attempt was made to light a small fire on the surface of the statue a hole would be burned through the resin rather than the entire statue being engulfed in flames.”

  14. I suspect the man wanted to generate some column inches to justify his portfolio and expense account. But it’s no bad thing if his inches cut across the BBC’s enthusiasm for all things woke. Judging by the useful insight given by this blog, though, a decent enough mainstream medium might have explained this background to the greater edification of their audience. Too much to ask, I suppose.

  15. You say “One would think that in the midst of a pandemic and the effects of Brexit, there would be more important things for any secretary of state to do.”. But surely you have noted the performance of this government so far?

  16. David, this pointless foray into the preservation of statues reminded me of Cummings (and indeed Trump) & his ability to distract, especially the media and send everyone off on some wild goose chase. The Barnard Castle interview was a case in point where every political correspondent dropped everything to be present in Downing Street for a ludicrous pantomime benefit for stand-up comedians & Specsavers.

    Robert Jenrick has done the same or tried to, except this time it’s dead on its feet.

    The question should be: “what have we missed?”

    1. I am afraid that these things do need to be picked off, diligently and patiently, as they arise – the point is to avoid joining in a ‘culture war’.

      And so I will blog about them, as someone needs to do so, and it may as well be me.

      1. Many thanks David and I appreciate what you’re doing along with many others. Perhaps I should have rephrased the question to “what else have we missed?”

        I wouldn’t dispute such nonsense does need to be called out although, perhaps naively, I would like to see the “serious” media take some responsibility for what today they publish without critical appraisal or comment.

        I believe the risk from the attention they have given this (although it seems to have run out of steam since), as with the oxygen they given Trump & our own brexit mob, is the constant diversion of attention off what might really matter and we all end up in the same vacuous trap.

        Many thanks again, Peter

  17. This seem to be an an attempt to enshrine a bit of reverse virtue signalling (or perhaps even vice signalling) into law.

  18. Well, perhaps if he’s busying himself with this he’ll have less time to be interfering in other local planning applications in exchange for donations to the Tory party.

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