Richard Derecki: A Pink Plaque for Nicky Gavron

Richard Derecki: A Pink Plaque for Nicky Gavron

Blue, brown, green and now pink. There are many commemorative plaque schemes across London. The first such plaques were put up in 1867 by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA): one to Lord Byron, the other to Napoleon III. Only Napoleon’s survives. You can find it on King Street, SW1.

Over the next 35 years the RSA put up 35 in all, though only half are still there. In the early 1900s, the London County Council (LCC) took over the scheme and experimented with different styles and colours before the stripped-back blue design we now know became the norm.

Following the abolition of the LCC, the Greater London Council (GLC) took over. It widened the range of people commemorated and pushed out into the suburbs. Between 1967 and its own abolition in 1986, the GLC put up 262 plaques and, for the first time, used them to designate buildings where historical events had taken place.

This practice caught on, and a range of plaques have come to be used to mark significant local places, such as hidden artists’ studios, theatres and pubs of interest, old factories, or where buildings had been destroyed by World War II bombs.

After the GLC’s demise, English Heritage took over and has erected some 450 Blue Plaques, taking the total across London to over 1,000. The organisation acknowledges that women are under-represented – they comprise only 14 per cent of the total  – and wants more to be recognised.

I have been campaigning for a plaque to celebrate the life and work of the early English feminist Mary Astell, but have been unable to locate an extant building she lived in, which is one of the criteria English Heritage applies. I know where places she called home were but, given that was a figure from the 17th Century, it is hardly surprising that the actual houses she occupied have been demolished. A plaque on a wall close to a former abode won’t do.

The other main Blue Plaque criterion is that the person to be commemorated must have been dead for at least 20 years. But a separate plaque initiative is taking a more relaxed view of place and time. Coordinated by Catherine Wells, the Highgate Festival’s Pink Plaque scheme began in 2019 , growing out of the Remarkable Women of Highgate project. Pink Plaques are exclusively dedicated to notable women with ties to that part of London whose achievements may have gone unrecognised. They have now appeared across Highgate.

Alicia Pivaro, one of the programme’s founders, has noted: “It started very informally and was all done with no budget, with collaborative support from many other locals and the amazing generosity of Westside London,who continue to print our plaques for free. Luckily, no real barriers emerged apart from some plaques lost to theft or damage. We would love to see it spread, hopefully by other community organisations or activist groups, as it should be a bottom-up initiative and process. The more diverse people and their stories are shared in the city the better.”

Alongside artists such as Christina Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal, and entertainers like comedian Victoria Wood, the Pink Plaque project celebrates women who have given, and are still giving, to their community in a way that adds value to society. For example, there is a plaque to the lifeguards of Kenwood Ladies pond and one to Anita Probert, actor, pianist, singer and local teacher. There’s a wonderful walk to be done from Archway station to Highgate following the Pink Plaque map, ticking off as many plaques as possible on the way.

Last Wednesday, a new Pink Plaque was unveiled for Highgate planning and environmental luminary Nicky Gavron. She was a Labour councillor in Haringey in the 1980s and 1990s, and went on to become a member of the London Assembly from 2000 until 2021. Between 200 and 2008 she was also Mayor Ken Livingstone’s statutory deputy.

Throughout her time in politics, Nicky was at the  forefront of developing integrated and sustainable land-use, transport and environmental planning policies for London and counts among her many successes London’s first climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies.

The Pink Plaque celebrates, in particular, her role in saving the Jackson Lane community centre from government plans in the 1970s and 1980s to turn the Archway Road into a three-lane motorway. Those plans were only finally defeated in 1990 after a long and bruising local campaign.

Jacksons Lane executive director Hannah Cox commented: “Nicky has been intrinsic to making Jacksons Lane what we are today, from developing the building into a community arts centre as one of our co-founders, to campaigning against the widening of the Archway Road, which would have seen us demolished. We are so delighted that Nicky’s vital work will be now honoured with a Pink Plaque at Jacksons Lane, where it all began.”

There were a number of speeches from colleagues of Nicky during her five decades of political activism, charting her journey from the family, to the local to the international stage. The publication of the World Cities report in 1991, setting out a compelling vision for the kind of city London could become and the “joined-up” thinking across policy fields that would be necessary to deliver it, was noted as a key milestone in her career.

So, too, was 2000 and the first elections for a London Mayor and Assembly, creating a new form of London-wide government in the form of the Greater London Authority. Back then, ambition for the institution was great, the possibilities seemed endless and there was a palpable sense of excitement about what could be achieved. We can only hope such things will be revived by the next elections for a Mayor and Assembly members to take place in May 2024.

X/Twitter: Richard Derecki and  On London. Photograph: Tom Copley. If you value On London‘s output, become a supporter or, alternatively, a paying subscriber to editor and publisher Dave Hill’s Substack for just £5 a month or £50 a year. In return you get a comprehensive weekly London newsletter and offers of free tickets to London events.

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