A West Leeds councillor has called Leeds City Council’s decision to look into its civic statues a ‘knee-jerk reaction’ to protests that will do nothing to address racial inequalities, writes Richard Beecham.
Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake’s announcement earlier this week that the authority would conduct a city-wide review into civic statues and monuments.
It followed demonstrations and protests in recent days, which included the toppling of the statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol.
But leader of the council’s opposition Conservatives group, Coun Andrew Carter (Calverley and Farsley Ward), claimed such a move would not help get to the root of inequalities, and warned the removal of statues could be a “rewriting” of history.
Coun Carter said:
“It’s disappointing that Coun Blake did not think it appropriate to seek all party support for this move but if she had, I would have suggested she takes a different approach.
“We are still in the midst of a global pandemic and the country is still in lockdown. The council taxpayer of Leeds is picking up the bill for cleaning up acts of vandalism and will also have to pick up the bill for a commission on statues that won’t actually get to the root of inequalities or seek to address them.
“An independently-run commission is one thing but a cobbled together body to examine statues in Leeds formed as a knee-jerk reaction to race relations protests won’t make the lasting change those protesting want.”
The authority yesterday confirmed former Armley councillor Alison Lowe, who was the city council’s first ever black female member, would head up the review into the council’s response to an ongoing debate around statues of some historic figures.
It followed an incident earlier this week in which demonstrators daubed graffiti on a statue of Queen Victoria in Woodhouse Moor. Council officers have since cleaned the statue up.
Coun Carter said:
“Some of those historical figures who are being vilified are the very people responsible for us having the freedom to protest in the first place.
“We should constantly look for opportunities to create art and public realm that celebrate those who have made significant contributions to our city and that reflect the wonderfully diverse communities within it.
“We should study the past, learn from it, use it, sometimes be ashamed of it, but we should never, ever erase it. Vilifying British heroes who helped preserve our freedoms is unacceptable.
“Tearing down the statues that tell the story of our city and the journey we have been on will do nothing to address inequalities and injustice that still exist today and that we must do far more to resolve.”
“Rewriting our history to tarnish the great things we’ve achieved will not help to narrow the deeply entrenched gap between the wealthiest and poorest in our city.
“Assassinating the characters, flawed as many were, of some of those who paved the way for Leeds to be the dynamic, multicultural city it is today will not help the communities who’ve been entrenched with poverty for decades and frequently left out of the prosperity of the city.”
He concluded by claiming the council should focus instead on tackling inequalities and dealing with the coronavirus crisis.
Announcing the review on Wednesday, Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake had said:
“We’re incredibly proud of our diverse multicultural city here in Leeds and particularly proud of the relationships we have and the work we do with our communities across the city.
“It’s absolutely crucial to us that we keep those relationships strong and everything we do is done in a spirit of dialogue, consultation and, most importantly, listening to people’s views.”
“We have decided to look at the statues we have in the city and understand their background to ensure our city’s rich multi-cultural history is appropriately celebrated and represented and also to identify any gaps that exist. We very much look forward to working with Alison to take these matters forward.”
On the graffiti of the Queen Victoria statue, Coun Blake added: “As a council and a city we will always support freedom of speech and people’s rights to express their views in a peaceful and respectful way. However, we do have established policies regarding graffiti on public property and will continue to enforce these.”