New German monuments law pushes out heritage experts

The parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia has passed a new law regarding monument protection, despite protests from heritage experts and professionals

Linen weaving market in Essen, North Rhine-Westphalia. Image via wikimedia (GFDL)
Linen weaving market in Essen, North Rhine-Westphalia. Image via wikimedia (GFDL)

The previous law was the first of its kind in the region, and had been in place since 1980. For many people, however, the monuments law was long overdue a change. There were complaints about a lack of funding, but also concerns that the old law is too restrictive. In recent years, there has been a push across the Europe and the world to improve sustainability and energy efficiency of old buildings which might be difficult to achieve under older, conservation-focused laws.

The first two attempts to change the law never reached a vote due to signficant opposition from both politicians and heritage groups, but the third attempt passed on Wednesday, and will come into effect in June. One of the main changes in the legislation is that municipalities will now have sole authority over monuments.

In the last few weeks, the German Foundation for Monument Protection and the Monument Protection Alliance of North Rhine-Westphalia protested in front of the parliament buildings. A petition against the law had reached 24,000 signatures. Those protesting fear that the new law will allow for the region’s cultural heritage to be stripped away.

However, lobbyists for renewable energy hope that the new law will allow for climate-friendly renovations, which before might have been blocked on heritage protection grounds. For example, many school buildings in the region are believed to be fit for solar panels but are also listed monuments.

Reiner Priggen, Chairman of the State Association for Renewable Energies, which lobbies for renewable energy laws, said in a press statement: “Today is a good day for the Renewable energies in North Rhine-Westphalia. In particular, this makes it easier to use photovoltaics on monuments. […] the monument protection will no longer be able to formulate a blanket rejection here.” [Translated from German]

Why is heritage at risk?

Under the new law, heritage consultants would simply be advisers to the monuments authorities. They would no longer have any actual influence on any decisions about listed buildings. This law would also move the responsibility for monument protection to a city and municipal level, rather than regional.

Since the munipalities in Germany have very few heritage professionals, some see this as a further attempt to remove heritage experts from the process. Last year, Holger Mertens, the region’s state curator noted: “A survey of around 260 lower monument authorities showed that specialist knowledge is not available in every municipality”.

A common criticism of the new law is that it violates the “two-man rule” – whereby any important decision should be checked by at least two competent authorities. Previously, the regional and municipal power over how monuments are managed was balanced by the regional heritage agencies. Now, there are concerns that the new legislation would give too much power to poorly funded and understaffed municipal committees. However, the bill also seems to prioritise churches and religious buildings. If there is a dispute, they will be allowed to object at a higher level than non-religious monuments. What this means in practice is, like much of the new legislation, still unclear.

Whilst the aims of allowing more climate-friendly renovations to happen is an important goal, it remains to be seen whether this law will have the desired effect. Instead, the removal of experts from the process could lead to a great loss of cultural heritage in North Rhine-Westphalia.