Council defeats legal challenge over decision to rename square called after Elizabethan sailor with slave trade links

A district judge has rejected a legal challenge over a decision by Plymouth City Council to change the name of a square from an Elizabethan sailor associated with the slave trade, Sir John Hawkins, to a black footballer, Jack Leslie.

The claimant, Danny Bamping, made a wide range of submissions:

  1. That Section 18 of the Public Health Act did not allow a change of name of a street, only an amendment. He submitted the two have different meanings.
  2. That there was no proper public consultation and no proper consultation with those connected to the square.
  3. That there was no proper debate at the council meeting of 22 June 2020.
  4. The council did not comply with its own policy on street naming in that it did not properly consult with Jack Leslie’s family and did not comply with national policy which he stated sets out that streets should not be named after people.
  5. That the notice posted by the council was incorrectly worded in that it failed to have key information on and therefore the letters written in objection were rejected by the Court.
  6. Many people in Plymouth did not want the name change and there had been numerous letters of objection.
  7. The council should have considered other locations to name a street after Jack Leslie, particularly an unnamed street at Home Park, the ground of Plymouth Argyle Football Club (for whom he played).
  8. That the decision of the council was wrong and illogical in that it did not take account of the proper history of Sir John Hawkins.
  9. That the decision of the council was racist and non-compliant with the council’s own equality and diversity policy in that it was based upon Mr Leslie’s race and was a knee-jerk reaction in response to the Black Lives Matter Campaign and the death of George Floyd in America.
  10. That the council did not follow the national Geo Space Local Authority Guidelines.

In response, the city council submitted the following:

  1. That it had the power to rename the street as Parliament’s delegate.
  2. That it took the decision to rename the square as the duly constituted elected authority.
  3. That it fully complied with the requirements of Section 18 of the Public Health Act 1925 in that it posted a notice containing all required information, in the appropriate places for the appropriate period of time.
  4. It fully complied with its own policies in respect of street renaming and the permission of Jack Leslie’s family was obtained in writing.
  5. There was no requirement to consult with local residents as the street does not have residents.
  6. There was no requirement for any wider public consultation and such a motion was voted against at a full council meeting on 22 June 2020.
  7. The decision to rename the square had been explained and justified by the council, and that decision alone could not be shown by the appellant to be wrong.

Finding for the local authority, District Judge Jo Matson concluded – amongst other things - that:

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  1. A street may be renamed by a local authority under section 18.
  2. There was no duty on the council to hold a public consultation. In any event, the motion to do so was voted against at the properly constituted meeting of the council on 22 June 2020 and the council could not be criticised for not doing so.
  3. Under the council’s policy, it was only necessary to consult residents of the street. Given that there were no residents, no consultation with residents was necessary.
  4. There was a clear and democratic decision made not to have a public consultation on the renaming of the street and there had been a proper debate regarding this.
  5. The council did comply with its policy in relation to consultation with the family of Jack Leslie.
  6. The GeoPlace guidance did not say that streets could not be named after deceased persons. Even if it did, it was clear that the authority could establish its own policy and so the district judge accepted that “the GeoPlace guidance is exactly that, guidance”.
  7. It was not the case that the notice failed to have ‘key information’ on it. She said the council had complied with its requirement as regards the contents and requirements of displaying the notice.
  8. In relation to the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, the district judge accepted the evidence of a councillor that consideration was being given to changing the name of the square for some time beforehand.
  9. It was clear from both the evidence of the objectors to the name change and the evidence of the council that there were strong feelings on both sides. She had taken into account the views of the objectors.
  10. She did not accept that choosing to name the square after Jack Leslie was in anyway racist or against the council’s own equality and diversity policy.
  11. In deciding to remove the name of Sir John Hawkins from the square, the council clearly considered the history in relation to him and gave good reasons why his name was being removed and the square’s name changed to that of Jack Leslie. “As I have stated above, this was not a knee-jerk reaction….”

District Judge Matson concluded: “Given that I must place significant weight on the opinion and decision taken by the duly elected authority and that I have found proper consideration and reasons were given by the council, I find that it has not been proved by Mr Bamping that the decision of the council was wrong and I therefore dismiss this appeal.”

Responding to the ruling, the council said: “We are pleased with the outcome of this case and welcome the judge’s view that our policy and procedures for renaming the square were correctly followed. We now look forward to formally making the decision.

“We set out our reasons behind renaming the square in the summer, which was to respond to calls to change the name of a square which commemorated an Elizabethan seafarer closely associated with the slave trade.”

The statement added: “The council made it clear that the proposal was not an attempt to rewrite history or to forget Hawkins but that he needed to be remembered and acknowledged in a way that ‘tells a fuller story about his life and doesn’t commemorate him in way that gives offence.’

“We gave notice of our intention to rename the square to instead commemorate Jack Leslie - the Argyle footballer, who was the only professional black player in England when he played for the club between 1921 and 1934. It is believed that Leslie was set to become the first black player to represent England but was denied the opportunity when selectors were made aware that he was ‘a man of colour’.”

Mr Bamping said on Twitter that he intended to appeal. “I may have lost the battle on Friday - but the woke war is far from won.”

He also told Plymouth Live: “The people of Plymouth did not want this, they did not ask for this, they did not support this.”

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