Blue plaque rules must change to reflect diversity, says David Olusoga

Strict rules governing where a blue plaque can be fitted need to be relaxed to help celebrate black historical figures, David Olusoga has said.

The historian and BBC presenter helps oversee the London scheme, founded in 1866, which has highlighted properties associated with famous personalities ranging from Charles Dickens to Jimi Hendrix.

Rules stipulate that the plaques must be attached to buildings where the person either practised their trade or made their home, and that these must still be standing.

Only 4 per cent of the almost 1,000 commemorative signs on buildings across the city are dedicated to black people and Mr Olusoga has called for the rules to be changed to increase the number of historically less settled black people represented by the English Heritage scheme. He said the reform was needed "if we value as a country the contribution of black people".

English Heritage this year launched a review of its signage in the wake of Black Lives Matters protests to highlight the links to slavery and colonialism of figures such as Clive of India.

It has been proposed that the criteria for proposed plaques should be made "flexible" in order to tackle racial disparities in the scheme.

Benjamin Zephaniah, the poet, unveiling a plaque for Bob Marley last year


Historical figures celebrated by plaques are suggested by the public, but English Heritage has attempted to promote famous women to balance the predominantly white and male figures honoured by the 150-year-old system.

However, Mr Olusoga thinks more needs to be done, and that the requirement for fixed addresses may need to be relaxed to redress racial imbalances.

He said: "I think we need to be more flexible if we value as a country the contribution of black people to the British story, we need to find more inventive ways of imprinting it into our built landscape."

He told the Today programme: "There’s a piece of work that needs to be done… which is looking for locations that we can attach to lives we would very much like to celebrate with blue plaques.

"Very often black history is not about residential addresses, it’s about comings and goings, it’s about meetings, it’s about encounters, it’s about arrivals.

"I think we need some flexibility if we are going to capture the richness and complexity of black British history."

The University of Manchester professor and frequent contributor to the BBC called for change after a plaque honouring Ottobah Cugoano, the 18th-century black abolitionist, was unveiled on Pall Mall. Like many black Britons of the period, his existence was transient, and a still-standing address linked to him was difficult to establish.

Cugoano worked for the fashionable painter Richard Cosway, serving at the artist’s Schomberg House residence on Pall Mall where his plaque has been unveiled.

Mr Olusoga has argued that "if he hadn’t been in service to someone white and wealthy we wouldn’t have this address", and that this shows the case for reform.

English Heritage has indicated that because the blue plaque scheme is based on public nominations, representation depends on who is proposed.

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