Tom Sutcliffe: Blue plaques give the city soul - so why not pay for it ourselves?
'Rules should ensure towns aren’t blotched with commemorations to Harry Styles or Towie'
I love blue plaques. They offer a kind of protected tenancy to a section of society that doesn’t enjoy a lot of rights – the dead – and they add human texture to any city or town.
Personally I favour the more obscure plaques, if only because they’re an unusually consoling form of memento mori. One day, you think glumly, nobody will ever know I was here. But then again, any passer-by who can read can tell that the actress Lilian Harvey once lived at 13 Weston Park, and I don’t suppose the posthumous recognition is doing her a lot of good. That house still feels more “lived-in” than its neighbours though, a little more deeply embedded into the city’s evolving history. Which is one reason why a city without blue plaques would be a poorer thing.
But I confess that I didn’t feel any huge apprehension when I read that English Heritage was suspending its blue plaque approval scheme because of budget cuts. If ever a public pleasure was suited to public subscription and public selection, it’s surely this one.
English Heritage’s scheme may well have been rigorous and high-minded, reserving the honour for those whose reputations it was believed would last at least as long as a ceramic wall plate. But the scholarly restraint with which it operated could easily look fusty. It was never hard for The Daily Mail to fill a column or two with the snootiness of its latest allocations (the most recent, just last April, featuring a notional “snub” to Thora Hird).
Blue plaques should be crowd-sourced, with a website on which devotees could make their pitch for new candidates and a simple set of rules could be laid out to ensure that the city isn’t suddenly blotched with azure commemorations to Harry Styles or that bloke off Towie.
The cost of installation is modest enough to put it easily within reach of that sub-section of online voters prepared to put their money where their mouth is, but is just high enough to make people think twice. And instead of the debate about the merits of candidates being confined to the Blue Plaques Commission and the English Heritage staff who administer the scheme, we could all join in. It should have happened years ago.
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