England has a very rich but complex history. Our buildings, monuments and places sometimes bring us face to face with parts of our history that can be painful or shameful by today's standards. We recognise that there are historic statues and sites which provoke strong and sometimes conflicting views.
We have been working on the subject of contested heritage for some time, including through our Immortalised season. More recently we have advised government on its contested heritage guidance, which we have supplemented with a suite of case studies that we hope will help to inform the process of research, consultation, interpretation and reinterpretation for anyone who owns or looks after a historic site.
We believe the best way to approach statues and sites which have become contested is not to remove them but to provide thoughtful, long-lasting and powerful reinterpretation, which keeps the structure’s physical context but can add new layers of meaning, allowing us all to develop a deeper understanding of our often difficult past.
Contested Heritage in Listed Building Decisions
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.
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 decisions.
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. In considering applications to remove or alter historic statues, plaques, memorials or monuments, 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. 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. Local planning authorities need to consult the Secretary of State on planning applications for the full or partial demolition of a statue, monument, memorial or plaque which has been in place for ten or more years, where they do not propose to refuse the application.
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.