Robert Jenrick made a big fuss about statues a couple of weeks ago. In a Sunday Telegraph article, he promised to save statues and street names from “town hall militants and woke worthies”. So great is the danger, he is proposing to change the law. Any attempt to remove “heritage assets”, he said, would require planning permission and a full public consultation.
The previous Saturday, the day before this article was published, Mr Jenrick’s department made a major announcement. It wasn’t about statues though. The new policy announcement is the Right to Regenerate – a proposal which would give ‘the public’ (in other words anyone) the right to force the sale of ‘underused public land’. It was couched in fluffy community language but it didn’t take long for the professionals to see through it.
From the Architects’ Journal, here’s Tim Sloan:
It doesn’t take long to see how misguided these proposals are. Why only public land? Why isn’t the government also going after the private developers and housebuilders allowing their assets go to waste?
It’s difficult to see how any publicly owned assets that are released won’t end up going to developers – the only people with the time and money to properly pursue councils to dispose of what they don’t have plans for themselves.
And Holly Lewis:
This proposal will further strip local authorities of vital assets with the potential of serving niche interests rather than the public good.’
Once again serving up policies that favour time and cash rich communities, this proposal does nothing for the most needy – those that local authorities should be in a position to support through creative reuse of buildings and spaces that they control.
Former RIBA president Ben Derbyshire warned of a potential horror story, describing the policy as a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing.’
Right to Regenerate is, effectively, a land-grabbers’ charter. Well-resourced companies, deploying expensive legal advisors and geospatial surveys, would be able to identify ‘underused’ buildings or pieces of land. They would then have the legal right to force councils and other public bodies to sell them and would be given a first refusal option to buy any property they identified.
Of the two proposals, the one given most prominence on the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government website is Right to Regenerate. It’s currently sitting in the ‘Featured‘ spot on the website. The statement about statues, although it came out a day later, has all but disappeared. It’s not even on the website’s menu. You need to do a search to find it. It’s clear, then, which of the two policy announcements the civil servants believe is most important and most likely to lead to policy changes and legislation.
From the media reaction, though, you would conclude the opposite. You can probably guess which of these stories got the most column inches. The Right to Regenerate barely made it beyond the trade press and was pretty much done by the middle of the week. They were still talking about statues and ‘woke mobs’ on Marr the following Sunday and there are still articles about it appearing almost two weeks later.
Notice something else though. The Right to Regenerate announcement contains no mention of a planning process or public consultation. It appears, then, that Robert Jenrick plans to give you the right to oppose an attempt to take down a statue or change a street name but when it comes to developers helping themselves to bits of your local park, you’ll get no say because that will be their ‘legal right’.
Here we see the Culture War in microcosm. You get to have your say on stuff that doesn’t really make much material difference but when it comes to matters involving money, land or other resources, you don’t get a look in.
We know, though, that most Conservative MPs don’t really care about ‘culture war’ issues. Most of them are more socially liberal than the average voter.
American political scientist Alan Wolfe famously said:
The right won the economic war, the left won the cultural war.
But that’s because the right didn’t really care about the culture war. Both Thatcher and Reagan preferred to fight on the economic front. It was far more important to deregulate the economy and tame the unions. Let the left have their diversity, discrimination laws and ‘political correctness’.
The right likes to let the left ‘win’ on culture war issues because it enables them to talk up the threat of the country going to hell in a politically correct handcart even when a Conservative government has been in power for a decade. The last thing the Conservatives want is to stop people taking down statues. You need the odd statue-toppling or street name change to convince people that the baying woke mob really is at the door.
As planning lawyer Nigel Hewitson pointed out, most historic statues are listed, so there are already significant administrative barriers to removing them. But that wasn’t really the point of Mr Jenrick’s article. Its real purpose was to reignite the war on wokeness, not to trail a serious policy. That was done the previous day.
David Olusoga described the fuss over statues as theatre but a conjuring trick might be a more suitable analogy. Conjurers use sleight of hand and misdirection to divert the audience’s attention from the mechanics of the trick. By proclaiming his defence of statues that no-one is actually aiming to pull down, Robert Jenrick diverted most people’s attention. His forced privatisation policy has barely been discussed.
In 1852, Karl Marx made an astute observation about English Toryism:
The Tories in England long imagined that they were enthusiastic about monarchy, the church, and the beauties of the old English Constitution, until the day of danger wrung from them the confession that they are enthusiastic only about ground rent.
It’s as true today. The economic war is what really counts.
Next time you hear a government politician or one of their think-tank outriders banging on about statues or some other manufactured culture war outrage, ask yourself what else is going on. It will probably be something important, something that involves actual money and resources. Follow the money. Look for the ground rent. That’s where the real story will be.