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Planning and Heritage: Historic Statues, Plaques, Memorials and Monuments

Volume 687: debated on Monday 18 January 2021

Protecting our nation’s heritage

I would like to update the House about the role of the planning system in relation to the protection of historic statues, plaques, memorials and monuments. I am concerned that, over the last few months, some such heritage assets may have been removed without proper debate, consultation with the public and due process.

Indeed, the removal of a statue in Bristol was an act of criminal damage. We should never tolerate criminal acts and mob rule.

This Government are committed to ensuring our nation’s heritage is appropriately protected. It is important that all decisions on removing historic statues, plaques (which are part of a building and whose alteration or removal materially affects the external appearance of the building), memorials and monuments—even for a temporary period—are taken in accordance with the law and following the correct process. Decisions to remove any such heritage assets owned by a local authority should be taken in accordance with its constitution, following consultation with the local community and interested parties, and the rationale for a decision to remove should be transparent.

The planning system plays a crucial role in conserving and enhancing our heritage. Under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, listed building consent from the local planning authority is required for the removal or alteration of a statue, plaque, memorial or monument which is designated as a listed building, or which forms part of a listed building, where it affects the special historic or architectural character of the listed building.

Paragraph 193 of the national planning policy framework already states that great weight should be given to the conservation of a designated heritage asset. Paragraph 195 also requires that where development will lead to substantial harm to a designated heritage asset, local planning authorities should refuse consent, unless it can be demonstrated that the substantial harm or total loss is necessary to achieve substantial public benefits that outweigh that harm or loss.

I would also like to remind local planning authorities of the current requirements to notify Historic England and the national amenity societies of applications involving the demolition of a listed building. In those cases where local planning authorities are minded to grant consent for the removal of a listed statue, plaque, memorial or monument despite an extant objection from Historic England or one of the national amenity societies, they are required to notify the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who will then consider whether to call in the application or not. Where an extant objection is in relation to a listed building consent application made by Historic England or a local authority itself, the local planning authority must refer it to the Secretary of State for determination.

At present, these notification requirements do not apply in relation to grade II listed buildings where the removal of a statue, plaque, memorial or monument constitutes an alteration to a listed building rather than demolition. I intend to exercise my powers to direct local planning authorities that these types of application are subject to the same notification requirements as for applications involving the demolition of a listed building.

It is also important that the removal of historic statues, plaques, memorials and monuments which are not listed are subject to proper process. These heritage assets can often be well known local landmarks, but unless they meet certain size thresholds, their removal will not be currently classified as development for planning purposes and so is not subject to planning control.

I am today therefore setting out my intention to make the removal of any historic unlisted statue, plaque, memorial or monument subject to an explicit requirement to obtain planning permission. I also intend to require local planning authorities to adhere to similar notification requirements as for listed building consent applications involving listed statues, plaques, memorials and monuments. This will require directions and changes to secondary legislation including the permitted development right for the demolition of buildings.

In considering any applications to remove a historic statue, plaque, memorial or monument (whether a listed building or not), local planning authorities should have regard to the Government’s clear policy on heritage (summarised as “retain and explain”) as set out by the Digital Infrastructure Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman)—to Parliament on 25 September 2020. This statement now forms part of national planning policy and should be applied accordingly.

Historic statues, plaques, memorials and monuments should not be removed before a decision on the application is made.

I would also draw local planning authorities’ attention to the advice Historic England has published to support decision making involving heritage whose story or meaning has become challenged (“Checklist to help local authorities to deal with contested heritage listed building decisions”). As they note, “Our stance on historic statues and sites which have become contested is to retain and explain them; to provide thoughtful, long-lasting and powerful reinterpretation that responds to their contested history and tells the full story.”

The new legislation and directions referred to in this statement will come into effect in the spring.

I would like to make clear that, as the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, I have wide discretion to “call in” planning applications or recover appeals for my own determination, not least because of the controversy attached to such decisions. I will not hesitate to use those powers in relation to applications and appeals involving historic statues, plaques, memorials or monuments where I consider such action is necessary to reflect the Government’s planning policies as set out above.

In conclusion, this Government believe it is always right to examine Britain’s history, but the knee-jerk removal of statues does harm rather than good. Our aim should be to use heritage to educate people about all aspects of Britain’s past rather than censoring our shared British history.