Walking through the medieval port town of Winchelsea, East Sussex, past its only pub and through a jumble of church ruins, you begin to notice something. There are no street signs.
A legacy of its rare grid system, this layout had residents until the 16th century using coordinates, like “Sixth Street, Quarter Fifteen”. There are modern names, but they remain unmarked.
This historical quirk may soon be the envy of town planners across Britain. Since last June, a number of local authorities have been considering proposals to rename their streets – in an attempt to detangle British colonial heritage and slavery associations from the public realm. At least 18 councils, identified in a recent report by centre-right think tank Policy Exchange entitled “Protecting Local Heritage”, are considering street name changes.
After Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol toppled a statue of transatlantic slave trader Edward Colston last summer, councillors are still deciding whether to restore Colston Avenue and Colston Street to their original medieval names of St Augustine’s Back and Steep Street (which is, our rather less complicated ancestors observed, a “steep street”).
Though “de-Colstonification” of Bristol is nothing new (the concert hall decided to drop his name three years ago), the events of last summer have accelerated similar soul-searching across the country. An audit by the Welsh government found more than 200 streets, buildings and statues with connections to slavery, and the mayor of London Sadiq Khan announced a review of street and building names, statues and memorials across the capital.
Locals can request changes but only their council can rename a street. Usually, the local authority has to give one month’s notice (a physical notice, posted at each end), allowing residents time to appeal. Emergency services and the Royal Mail must also be given a say. Costs vary: residents would need £525 to rename a road in Cheshire, £721 in the Medway towns and a bargain £200 in Bradford.
“Those calling for change may not appreciate the limits on the role of a council in delivering it,” reads the weary guidance for local authorities on this issue, published by the Local Government Association.
There is impatience in Glasgow, where activists glued up guerrilla signs last year: “Rosa Parks Street” appeared beside Wilson Street, named after a merchant called George Wilson who profited from plantations.
It has taken 19 years for west London Sikhs to see the renaming of Havelock Road, home to London’s largest gurdwara (Henry Havelock was a British general whose men killed thousands in the 1857 Indian rebellion). After a consultation by Ealing Council, it has been named after Sikhism’s founder, Guru Nanak. A consultation found five households on the road directly affected by the change in favour, and two opposed. The other 50 did not even respond. A MailOnline headline in January, however, referred to it as a “row”.
[See also: Stephen Bush – In lockdown, I wanted to find out: what’s in a street name?]
A new housing development in Birmingham’s Perry Barr suburb will include a Respect Way, Diversity Grove and Humanity Close: entries to a public contest judged by a panel put together by Birmingham City Council. Although these street names are new, suggested by a local and do not replace existing ones, there was a right-wing backlash. A Conservative councillor in the area said “Woke Way” and “Remoaner Road” would have been more apt, and the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick called the names “anodyne” in a Telegraph column decrying “townhall militants”.
Yet arguments about “erasing heritage” fall down when minister-level outrage rarely follows the rebranding of roads, buildings and estates in the name of business.
England’s oldest factory, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry – where Big Ben and the Liberty Bell were made – has just received approval from Jenrick himself to be replaced with an 108-bedroom boutique hotel. Apparently, the developer’s proposals “cause no harm to the significance of the heritage asset”.
Cycling a familiar route to the Olympic Park in east London alongside what were once disused buildings over the past year, I have found the area suddenly rechristened “Hackney Bridge” – a rather bland bit of branding for a new cluster of bars on the Lee Navigation canal, with shops including an artisan perfumery and designer of bespoke skateboards.
This space, owned by the London Legacy Development Corporation planning authority, had previously been labelled Clarnico Quay: Clarnico was a local sweet factory famous in the area, ideally placed for receiving bulk loads of sugar from barges travelling up from London’s docks.
A phenomenon housing wonks call “villagisation” often begins with words like “village” or “quarter” tacked onto the name of the locale by developers, to conjure up a cosy new identity for revamped hunks of the public realm.
It can even be used for entire towns. Earlier this year, the government released funding for a new “media village” in the Essex motorway town of Purfleet – renamed Purfleet-on-Thames last July after a two-year petition by locals. And let us not forget the people of Staines, whose much-mocked Surrey town (infamously home to Ali G) was renamed Staines-upon-Thames after a vote by councillors in 2011.
I haven’t read any hysterical columns by offended ministers decrying these name changes as a repudiation of our history or a nefarious plot by local fundamentalists.
While Londoners cringe at the “Northbank” and “Midtown” monikers invented by business improvement districts in the capital, no culture war erupted around those. London’s South Bank only became known as such when the festival hall was built there in the Fifties. Names change with the times, needs, and influences – whether cultural or capital – on an area. It is telling which changes draw our ministers’ ire, and which are welcomed.
Back in East Sussex, the once anonymous thoroughfare of Winchelsea now goes by many unsignposted names: Monk’s Walk, German Street, Hiham Green and School Hill, as you wander north. An elegant compromise, perhaps. Though you have to pity the postman.