Historic England Position on Contested Heritage in Listed Building Decisions
By 'contested heritage' we mean historic objects, buildings or places whose received or conventional narratives are currently challenged.
The markers and symbols of the past are a powerful means of understanding and interpreting the past. Around the world, both in conflict and in peace time, throughout history, individuals and groups have focused on aspects of the historic environment to help them to assert, defend or deny a particular version of history. When an object or place becomes contested, strongly held views tend to emerge on all sides.
We are acutely aware that certain representations of history in our public realm can cause pain, distress or offence for particular groups. The buildings and monuments we choose to keep and protect are often taken as representative of our values as a society, even though some are very much at odds with contemporary values - for example representations of Edward Colston in Bristol that praise his achievements and don't acknowledge his role in the transatlantic slave trade. Historic England encourages contemporary responses to contested heritage that do not lead to removal or significant alteration of protected historic sites or monuments.
When an object or building becomes contested, there are sometimes calls to remove or alter the building or monument. As the Government's adviser on the historic environment, we believe that removing difficult and contentious parts of the historic environment would risk harming our understanding of our collective past. Instead, we would usually recommend that clear, long-lasting and/or innovative reinterpretation at or near a contested object or site can be used in order to reflect a changed context and contemporary understanding of the (say) statue or memorial.
Histories may be re-told or reinterpreted but, once lost, the historic environment cannot be re-made. This built historic record remains our shared physical legacy of humankind. It prompts us to address our past, as understood and narrated by each generation. New responses can involve re-interpretation, new layers and installations, new artworks, displays and counter-memorials, as well as intangible interventions, such as education programmes.
Historic England advises central government on matters including the listing and de-listing (designation and de-designation) of buildings and advises local government on heritage applications in the planning system such as those for listed building consent. The fact that a person or activity commemorated at a designated site represents a disputed view of the past is not likely, in itself, to be a sufficient reason for de-designation. However, it would be appropriate to amend and update the formal list description to reflect the latest historical narratives. The DCMS Principles of Selection for Listing set out the grounds on which listing (or de-listing) are made . Anyone can add factual information about a nationally designated heritage asset to the National Heritage List for England through the Enriching the List process.
In relation to our role in advising planning authorities on heritage applications, we work within the planning system in relation to sites of contested heritage in the same way as we would for other sites. We are of course mindful that the emphasis of the narrative about the person, event or place may have changed, as other circumstances will have changed since it was first erected, such as its setting or its function.
You can read our checklist to help local authorities to deal with contested heritage listed building decisions.
Ultimately, it is for the planning authority as decision-maker to weigh the harm against the public benefit, especially given that some of those benefits are likely to range beyond heritage issues. Local authorities will also deal with locally listed and other non-nationally designated heritage assets and in these cases Historic England has no statutory role.
Historic England's Conservation Principles provide an overarching approach to how we advise on applications for listing and for alteration and/or removal. Our Planning Charter sets out when and how we engage in specific cases.