Rhodes to Ruin: the planning and moral complexities of removing the Cecil Rhodes statue from Oriel College

Rhodes Building, Oriel College. By Robert Cutts - https://www.flickr.com/photos/panr/6697486327/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91167023

An independent Commission has reported to Oriel College’s Governing Body concerning the legacy of controversial mining magnate, politician, imperialist and former Oxford student, Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902).

Established due to the Governing Body’s wish to remove a statue of Rhodes from Oriel’s Grade II* High Street building, the Commission was also tasked with reviewing how the ‘College’s twenty-first century commitment to diversity can sit more easily with its past’.

Complex planning challenges resulting in a change of decision

Fundamentally, the Commission supports the Governing Body’s intent to remove the statue. However, the undoubted complexity, challenges and associated expense that would ensue (principally from a planning perspective and with respect to impacts upon a listed building etc.), has led to the further decision not to embark upon its removal.

It will instead seek to contextualise the College’s connection with Rhodes, whilst improving educational equality more generally, which is obviously commendable. As is the fact that proposals to remove the statue of Rhodes were not implemented arbitrarily and without due consideration.

And whilst memorialising Rhodes is perhaps unpalatable in some quarters, the removal of his statue for political reasons would seriously impinge upon (if not entirely override) the fundamentally democratic process of planning, whilst setting a very dangerous precedent otherwise.  

We should not attempt to manipulate history, but learn from mistakes made

Without diving into Orwellian cliches, history – in whatever form it takes and as nebulous as it perhaps is – should never be forgotten, erased or manipulated in any way, shape or form. The resulting dangers are not only clear but present and, whilst perhaps obvious, patently not obvious enough. 

Simplistically, this is because one of history’s  principal functions is to remind us of the mistakes from which we might learn and, in turn, the role of heritage assets to serve as reminders of the good, bad and ugly of our past. History is inquiry – and therefore debate – but necessarily depends upon evidence.

Otherwise, physical heritage performs a high number and variety of key functions in society, not least of which – from a perspective of urban design – includes the role of wayfinding and the means by which we orientate ourselves in our environment.  

Heritage has an important role in the function of our moral compass

Such a role extends to our orientation and consequent wayfinding from an ethical perspective. Here, heritage assets further serve to assist the functioning of our moral compass; principally by means of retelling that which should be celebrated or condemned, so that one may be perpetuated, and the other, appropriately left to history.

And whatever you think of the planning system, one fundamental precept is that of sustainable development; defined by the NPPF as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs.’ Which essentially  means not deciding what is good for future generations, whilst taking away the ability to decide this for themselves.  

Whilst perhaps hackneyed with respect to subjects of this sort, it is worth quoting Orwell’s 1984 after all:

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped.

Which is an outcome none of us would wish.

Not in my back parish… Balanced, democratic planning decisions can overcome local uproar

Planning applications can cause local wars despite fairness and transparency during the application process

As we all know, the planning system shapes what development can happen, where. Since the passing of the Town & Country Planning Act in 1947, key development decisions are taken by elected representatives rather than private individuals; specifically with a view to ensuring an ultimately democratic process. 

Balancing planning decisions with local democracy

Here, planning decisions are based on balancing competing interests and making an informed judgement against local and national policy frameworks in the wider public interest; even where there is a predisposition in favour of one side of the argument or the other.

However, the risk of controversy and conflict is heightened by such a system, which – in the wholly appropriate effort to ensure that outcomes are as democratic as possible – invites public opinion before taking final decisions. 

The start of a local war

But what happens when allegedly informed residents, further armed with assumption, speculation, and a deep war chest, take it upon themselves to interject with wholly subjective, often self-interested views into an application that they, and other, reassuringly like-minded agitators deem unacceptable?

Let us take, for example, a small village. Having developed as a linear settlement before the Norman Conquest, this settlement has since been subject to extensive 20th and 21st century infill development; predominantly in the form of modest residential estates along its principal historic route. 

In light of recent, fairly significant development within the actual core of this historic village, extensive and aggressive opposition to proposals to develop an isolated structure – in a demonstrably local vernacular – on its outskirts, is therefore highly questionable. 

A controversial application

Here, a local business, providing childcare to residents in and around the area and therefore offering considerable public benefit, submitted an application to construct new premises, before being put definitively through their paces as a result of extensive local uproar.

Given the unduly controversial nature of proposals, the application was not determined by officers under delegated powers, but at committee and, on planning balance, permission was granted. However, the democratic process this evidenced was seemingly not enough.

The cost of overcoming objections

Further hurdles loomed when the Parish Council launched a crowdfunding campaign in order to take the Local Planning Authority to the High Court and judicial review for their decision. Fortunately, this was quashed, and the original permission remains in place. 

Despite this success, significant concern remains. In a system that strives for transparency -the full, sorry saga is not set out here – where does this leave qualified professionals and businesses that have had both time and money wasted at the hands of interested parties and their objections? 

Fairness, transparency and democracy

It would seem that planning does not merely entail making fair and transparent decisions based solely upon planning considerations, but must also be expected to strike a balance between qualified decision makers and the inevitable chatter of those with an excess of time, money and clear disdain for democratic planning. 

It would nevertheless appear heartening that – in the face of those who can afford to shout loudest, longest – democracy will nevertheless win out; but at what cost?