Do statues need protecting? Government set to propose new measures

Posted on: January 18, 2021 by

Yesterday,  Sunday, 17 January 2021, the Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick announced his plans to introduce new legal protections for historic statues and plaques which will be presented to Parliament imminently. The aim of these new measures is for any change to such monuments to go through a system of approval, whether through listed building consent for those that are listed or planning permission for those that are not. This new policy, called “retain and explain”, is being initiated to ensure that such monuments are kept for future generations but also explained, though how the latter is to be implemented is not detailed.

The decision follows the dramatic removal earlier this year of a statue of Edward Colston – a Bristol slave trader and philanthropist who is remembered throughout the city – which saw his statue being pulled down, dragged through the streets and toppled into Bristol Harbour during anti-racism protests. At similar protests, primarily peaceful in nature, the statue of Winston Churchill at Parliament Square was defaced by the words “was a racist” on its plinth.

The debate surrounding historic statues, plaques and monuments of historic people whose actions in today’s world would not be considered acceptable is not new and remains as divisive as ever. Some consider the honouring of these people by such monuments, often in prominent locations, an abhorrence and have campaigned long and hard for their removal, arguing that such memorials no longer have a place in society. One of these long-standing examples is the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford. Others advocate that these monuments need to be re-contextualised by having more informative plaques and descriptions attached to them or be placed in museums, also with more explanatory information. For example, following the end of communism in Hungary all statues and monuments representing this epoch were removed from Budapest and placed in a specially designed open-air museum known as Memento Park. The statue of Edward Colston was removed from the harbour the day after it was submerged there and is now in storage. A representative from Bristol City Council initially said that it would be displayed in a museum, with the graffiti and ropes used to pull it down left intact, thus giving it a new context and story. The Council promptly announced the launch of a new commission to look into the history of the city and how it should be represented.

Very shortly after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a statue of Robert Milligan in London was removed by the local authority and two statues were removed from public view at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals due to the links of the people they represent with the slave trade. Other councils have said they will review statues within their ownership and many institutions have committed to review their historical links with the slave trade. How these reviews are to be done and what the final product will look like is yet to be seen. But there is clearly a fear by some that we will be seeing a re-writing of history that could lead to an ignorance of the past and that these reviews and changes are being done in haste as knee-jerk reactions in response to the wide spread anti-racism protests.

Jenrick’s proposed policy seems to indicate that such monuments will only be removed in exceptional circumstances. It also seems to suggest that if for example Historic England objects to a removal proposed by a local council, then the Communities Secretary will be notified so that he or she can make the final decision. Whether the new policy will apply to alterations, or new descriptive plaques for instance is unknown.

Similarly, whether these new measures will help to place these sometimes controversial statues in the ideological framework of the 21st century remains to be seen. The toppling of Colston’s statue was not done on a whim during a peaceful protest, it was the culmination of decades of disenchantment as a result of continuous failed attempts to place the statue in what was felt by many to be a more appropriate context.

Fellow IAL member and planning law barrister Richard Harwood OBE QC helpfully points out on his Twitter feed that presently the process to be followed for the removal of a statue is far from straightforward. Within the existing planning framework, some removals may not require formal permission, for example if an exemption for removing ‘small’ objects applies. Altering these provisions to ‘protect’ statues, as Jenrick puts it, may require manifold detailed changes throughout the planning regime. Richard will also have an article on the topic in the upcoming edition of Art Antiquity and Law.

Whatever the outcome of Parliament’s discussions on these proposals, the IAL will as usual be watching the developments with baited breath.

Image: Statue of Edward Colston, Bristol, (prior to its toppling).  William Avery, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons