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.
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 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’:
Statues to get protection from 'baying mobs' https://t.co/yNC5uaGQI4— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) January 17, 2021
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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