Statues, Plaques and Memorials – new policies for old history
The government is consulting on revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which was last updated in 2019, to include guidance on the altering or removal of statues, plaques and memorials. Eleanor Grace, Principal Heritage Consultant, explains what the process could look like, if the revisions are accepted following the end of the consultation period on 27 March 2021.
One addition in the revised NPPF is a new paragraph in Section 16: ‘Conserving and enhancing the historic environment’, which reads: In considering any applications to remove or alter an historic statue, plaque or memorial (whether listed or not), local planning authorities should have regard to the importance of retaining these heritage assets and, where appropriate, of explaining their historic and social context rather than removal.
The proposed process is that anyone seeking to remove or alter a plaque, memorial or statue will need to apply to the relevant local planning authority (LPA) for planning permission and the decision should be made bearing in mind the government’s preference to ‘retain and explain’. Historic England will be notified if an LPA is minded to approve the proposed removal or alteration and if they object, the application will be referred to the Secretary of State for the department of digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) to make the final decision.
But will this make much difference in practice? If the plaque, memorial or statue is recognised as, or forms part of a heritage asset, it will already require permission from the LPA or Historic England to be altered or removed in many circumstances. For example, if it is listed or scheduled, or fixed to a listed building or scheduled monument, consent is already required. In addition, planning permission may be required if it is located within a conservation area. These decisions should already be made bearing in mind it’s heritage significance, including setting.
However, if a memorial is not recognised as a nationally important heritage asset, is it appropriate that it be subject to such a level of national scrutiny? Historic England decided not to intervene when the Edward Colson statue (which was listed) was toppled in Bristol, leaving it to the local authority to decide on the most appropriate location for the statue. One benefit of the proposed new Paragraph 197 is that it may spark debate and increase local awareness of the history and context of the community’s memorials.
The new paragraph also raises questions about what objects are subject to the proposed restrictions (and who decides)? As Pitt Rivers curator, Dan Hicks, asked: “Will planning permission be required to move any park bench with a plaque? And what about garden gnomes?”