The UK government on Monday unveiled new laws to protect England’s cultural and historic heritage in the form of statues and monuments to ensure they are not removed “at a whim”.
The move comes in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests in the country last year targeting several historic monuments, including with graffiti on Mahatma Gandhi’s statue in Parliament Square in London.
Another set of protesters had succeeded in pulling down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol and dumping it into the river during UK-wide demonstrations against the killing of 46-year-old African-American George Floyd in the US.
UK Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said new legal protections mean that historic statues should be “retained and explained” for future generations and individuals who want to remove any historic statue, whether protected with a “listed” status or not, will now require listed building consent or planning permission.
“We cannot — and should not — now try to edit or censor our past. That’s why I am changing the law to protect historic monuments and ensure we don’t repeat the errors of previous generations, losing our inheritance of the past without proper care,” said Mr Jenrick.
“What has stood for generations should be considered thoughtfully, not removed on a whim, any removal should require planning permission and local people should have the chance to be properly consulted. Our policy in law will be clear, that we believe in explaining and retaining heritage, not tearing it down,” he said.
Under the new regulations, if the council intends to grant permission for removal of a particular statue and Historic England objects, the Communities Secretary will be notified so he or she can make the final decision about the application in question.
“For hundreds of years, public statues and monuments have been erected across the country to celebrate individuals and great moments in British history. They reflected the people’s preferences at the time, not a single, official narrative or doctrine. They are hugely varied, some loved, some reviled, but all part of the weft and weave of our uniquely rich history and built environment,” added Mr Jenrick.
Historic England and the Secretary of State for the Department of Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS) will apply the new policy of “retain and explain”, meaning historic statues will only be removed in the “most exceptional circumstances”.
One of the controversial historic statues under the scanner has been that of Robert Clive, referred to as “Clive of India” for his role in establishing Britain’s colonial domination over India in the 18th century.
It was saved from removal from its pride of place in Shrewsbury town centre in western England, Clive’s birthplace, after a local council voted against its removal. It has since received a grant for an information board to be erected to present a more detailed historical picture of the controversial British governor.
The government said that many unlisted heritage assets are of interest, significance and pride to the local communities in which they are erected and it is right that protections are put in place for them. The new laws, to go through Parliament this week, will protect 20,000 statues and monuments throughout England for future generations.
“I strongly believe that we should learn from our past — in order to retain and explain our rich history,” said UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden.
“The decisions we make now will shape the environment inherited by our children and grandchildren. It is our duty to preserve our culture and heritage for future generations and these new laws will help to do so,” he said.
The legal changes bolster previous heritage protection laws in the UK, such as the Civic Amenities Act 1967 and the Town & Country Planning Act 1947.
The new rules will also apply to unlisted historic plaques, memorials or monuments which will also require planning permission and Historic England to be informed.