Readers might recall when last year a statue of Edward Colston, the Bristol slave trader, was knocked off its plinth by protesters, rolled down to the harbour and dropped in the river. There Edward might have stayed but, given that the statue formed part of a listed structure, the city council hauled him back out. Subsequently, a replacement statue representing one of the protesters making a Black Power salute was placed on the plinth. This was immediately taken down, the council pointing out that there is a requirement to adhere to the proper procedures. Following non-determination of applications for planning permission and listed building consent, however, the applicants went to appeal (DCS Number 200-010-271).
Both appeals have recently been dismissed, a particular concern of the inspector being that it would make no sense to place a statue of Jen Reid, a female black protester, on a plinth which bears an inscription and scenes relating to the life of Edward Colston. Hmm.
We have raised this question before (in Deeds, not words), in relation to a proposed statue of Emmeline Pankhurst next to the Palace of Westminster, but is it really the role of the planning inspector to consider the identity of the person commemorated by a statue? Shouldn’t we, as planners, confine ourselves to consideration of matters such as impact on street scene, scale, design quality, materials? Otherwise, all sorts of debate ensues. For example, whilst the inspector might have had a point with regard to the historic integrity of the monument, isn’t that overlooking its significant recent history? And, must public art only document, record and inform? Is it not sometimes the purpose of art to disturb, to raise questions, to challenge perceptions? Indeed, the discord between plinth and statue which disturbed the inspector might be seen as the perfect metaphor for the discord which exists in society and resulted in Edward Colston being tipped into the drink in the first place.
Let’s not get out of our depth.
Further appeal examples relating to public art can be found at section 17.437 of DCP Online.