Counting newts and toppling brutes

With much fanfare and a new fatuous 3-word slogan, Boris Johnson announced yesterday… well, very little of substance. Except maybe that the £12 billion funding for housing announced in the budget earlier this year would be stretched over 8 years rather than 5. In case your head is still spinning with the circular brilliance of ‘build build build’, like the figures in an Escher drawing trying to work out how one stops the country and gets off, he also talked about newts. Specifically, he promised that:

“this government will shortly bring forward the most radical reforms to our planning system since the end of the second world war… time is money, and the newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and prosperity of this country” Boris Johnson, 30/06/2020

Unfortunately, as people were quick to point out, it’s not regulation that slows down house building. In 2017-18, planning permission was granted for 382,997 homes, well in excess of the government’s target of 300,000 homes a year. But developers aren’t building them. There’s a comprehensive 2018 report by Sir Oliver Letwin setting out exactly where the issues lie. But Johnson is ripping that up, possibly because it was commissioned by that notoriously partisan body, the… er, Conservative Government.

So why tear up the rulebook? It’s about whose heritage you value. In the same speech, he also said:

“I don’t believe in tearing people down any more than I believe in tearing down statues that are part of our heritage” Boris Johnson, 30/06/2020

In defending statues and trashing environmental protections, the government’s message is clear: whose heritage matters? Not yours.

The cold edifice of a man who inherited a fortune and bloated it further through the traffic in human lives? Heritage.

The wildflower meadows your grandparents played in? The Roman town whose walls hold the stories of the people who came from across the empire to live, love, and work there? The shop your parents set up; the street you were born on; the dock where your husband’s family first set eyes upon this country? Nah. Bulldoze them. Sweep them away for a cluster of naff executive homes, ready to lie empty as their cheap mortar crumbles because no-one can afford to buy them. Call them Roman Way or Windrush Close, the last faint echoes on the breeze. And who knows, maybe someday a child will dig up a few scattered Roman potsherds and wonder what stood before. Maybe a grandson will stand before a locked gate and peer through the railings, straining for a glimpse of a dock basin before the security guard hustles him along.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot said that “any historical narrative is a bundle of silences”. Whose story gets told? Whose story does not?

“History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.” Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995)

Take a look at the statue of Rhodes. Of Colston. Ask yourself, who do these statues represent? Is it you?

Many of you who value the heritage and environmental protections of our existing planning system will also abhor the removal of statues. I’ve written before about statues: how they become a flashpoint, a comfortable symbol to defend because they insulate us from darker and less comfortable contradictions buried in our own local and family histories. But, after all, Colston was Grade 2 listed. If I care about heritage protection, should I not deplore his sudden immersion? No. Heritage is not fossilisation: places are for people. But where will it end, you might ask? It ends when everyone’s stories are told. It ends when the silences in our historical narratives are broken by the voices of people we have marginalised and othered for too long. It ends when we understand how power is distributed unequally. It ends when we expose its roots.

Pencil sketch of Gloucester Docks

Field sketch of Gloucester Docks.

This is Gloucester docks: stunning industrial heritage, and a great example of the collision of heritage, planning, and inequality. They are now a thriving and desirable mix of apartments and commercial development. Their survival and regeneration owes much to the warehouses’ status as listed buildings. But the docks owe their 19th century prosperity to the investment of Samuel Baker and Thomas Philpotts, whose profits came from the backs of slaves; they received £4283 in 1834 (equivalent to £561,000 in today’s prices), in compensation for the freedom of 240 slaves upon abolition. The docks stand as a monument to the tangled, pervasive web of racial inequality, and tell that story in a far more powerful and nuanced fashion than a lump of Bronze on a tall plinth ever could. Baker later went on to purchase Thorngove House, near Grimley. I cycled past it last night, oblivious to that link. I never knew. The roots run deep and wide.

Heritage and environmental regulations are not perfect; there’s room for improvement. But they do put some of the power in the hands of those who would champion the small but valuable corners of our country: the distinctive, the local. The places and the stories that matter to people. The untold stories. They are a brake on the excesses of unchecked profiteering. They are a mechanism through which we are able to fill the gaps, to add voices, to ensure the histories of the extraordinary everyday are told and re-evaluated with each new discovery.

Black Lives Matter. Heritage matters. These are not contradictory statements. It’s the same fight. The same argument for value, respect, and representation. The cold dead stare of a statue and the cold hard cash of unregulated development are two sides of the same coin: they are marks of power, and a signal that, left to its own devices, power cares nothing for people, and nothing for place. Interrogate that power. Hold it to account, for the sake of all whose lives are held in its grip.