The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was updated this week and amongst the changes is a new policy on applications to remove historic statues or monuments. The amendment has been made in response to the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, a prominent C17th slave trader, in Bristol last summer during the Black Lives Matter protests.

In a Written Ministerial Statement on protecting heritage in January 2021, the Government described the removal of the statue of Colston as “an act of criminal damage” and although there are various legal safeguards in place controlling the removal of listed statues and monuments it was recognised that there were no equivalent protections for those not listed. As a result, the Government announced their intention to require the removal of any historic “statue, plaque, memorial or monument” to be subject to an explicit requirement to obtain planning permission. The Statement went on to say that the Government’s aim was “to use heritage to educate people about all aspects of Britain’s past rather than censoring our shared British history.” 

Subsequently, a Direction was issued by the Communities Secretary in April 2021 alongside changes to the General Permitted Development Order 2015 to reflect these aims and national policy has now been similarly updated with the insertion of Paragraph 198 within the NPPF:

 “In considering any applications to remove or alter a historic statue, plaque, memorial or monument (whether listed or not), local planning authorities should have regard to the importance of their retention in situ and, where appropriate, of explaining their historic and social context rather than removal.”

Accordingly, any individuals who want to remove a historic statue, whether listed or not, will now require either listed building consent or planning permission. If the relevant council receives an application for the removal of a statue they will need to take into account the requirements of paragraph 198 to ‘retain and explain’ rather than remove. If they seek to approve removal and Historic England objects the Council must notify the Secretary of State so they can make the final decision.

Whether or not you agree with the Government’s approach, it is clear that statues matter. They embody ideals about who and what we value as a society. The removal of statues of historic figures as viewed through modern lens may well be a form of presentism and cultural bias but is this necessarily wrong? It is not about censoring history but whether we need to keep statues to commemorate those figures. Having new legislation in place to ensure that there can be reasoned debate to decide whether a statue should be retained must be a good thing. However, if communities then decide they do not wish controversial historic statues to remain, such as the memorial of Edward Colston in Bristol, the new legislation means that decisions may end up being taken out of local hands.

As to how the new policy will be applied in practice is not yet known being so new but it is hoped that local and national interests will be balanced. Certainly, if any statues do end up being removed this will create opportunities for communities to find replacements that will reflect greater social diversity honouring aspirational men and women from all backgrounds.