05 Feb 2024

Art often divides opinion and none more so than art in the public realm. Public art can prove particularly contentious, it seems, when it involves life-sized model sharks turning up in unexpected places to the surprise of passers-by. Curiously, there have now been two high-profile cases involving the installation of replica sharks in unlikely settings which proved to be a challenge for development management.

Shark artwork in the canal basin ©ANTEPAVILION

The first case is the well-known 1986 ‘shark sticking out of the roof’ of a terraced house in Headington, Oxford. The second and much more recent case (400-044-103) is found in Hackney, where five model sharks have been allowed to be moored in a freshwater canal basin. Both unnatural habitats for a shark there is no disputing.

The Hackney sharks have been awarded a temporary nine-month permission by a planning inspector after the council failed to determine an application that followed a long-running dispute, including an injunction against their display upheld by the High Court in 2020. The council confirmed it would have refused permission due to the effect on the canal conservation area and listed bridge.   

Adjudicating on the proposal, the inspector was keen to dispel the appellant’s suggestion that the council’s actions were an attack on art, pointing out that the proposal raised important questions about the sharks’ effects on the historic environment rather than the artistic merits of the sharks (readers may form their own opinion on artistic merits).

In the inspector’s judgement, as the sharks would be viewed against a backdrop of utilitarian buildings rather than the listed bridge, they would not compete with the bridge or harm its setting, and have only limited localised effect on the extensive canal conservation area. Overall, the designated heritage assets would not be harmed. He also took into account an existing planning permission for the display of art installations (without restriction on size and form) in the canal basin, granted by an inspector in a separate earlier enforcement inquiry appeal decision. Acknowledging the drama of the art installation, the inspector went on to allow the appeal. He did, however, impose a condition limiting the times when a lecture “on important themes in contemporary architecture and urbanism” by each shark would be played. Now that’s scary!

DCP 17.436 Public art and statues, offers further insight into this subject and includes a previous Hackney appeal case cited by the council in aid of their case against the sharks. This dismissed appeal (400-017-657) concerned the siting of shipping containers on the canal-side, painted with artwork. The ‘sharks’ inspector observed, however, that this case seemed quite different, inasmuch as the shipping containers were larger than the sharks and planning permission had already been granted for the display of art installations in the canal.