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LONDON (Reuters) - Authorities in the home city of British urban artist Banksy plan to become the first to allow a regular public vote on whether popular works of street graffiti should stay or be removed.
The move by Bristol council in the west of England follows a sell-out Banksy exhibition in the city that attracted 300,000 visitors and boosted the local economy by an estimated 10 million pounds ($17 million).
Councilors are expected to formally adopt the policy in coming weeks, breaking ranks with other authorities in Britain that adopt a no-tolerance attitude to graffiti.
"The policy we had inherited was basically scrub everything off unless (the artists) have got prior permission," said councilor Gary Hopkins, cabinet member for Environment and Community Safety.
Under the new policy, unsightly graffiti will still be removed swiftly, but the council will consult on murals or artwork "deemed to make a positive contribution to the local environment" and where the property owner has no objections.
Some street paintings will be put on a council website so the public can vote on their merits, said Hopkins.
"Anything that is potentially regardable as art, that people might want to keep, we'll potentially put up on the website.
"Some stuff, we wouldn't really need to ask, for completely the opposite reason, because people love it."
The move has its origins in a debate in 2006 over whether a Banksy mural on the side of a Bristol sex health clinic should be allowed to stay.
The witty image showed a naked man clinging to a window ledge while a besuited man looks out with a semi-clad woman lingering in the background, and was backed by 93 percent of those who took part in an online vote.
The decision on the Banksy mural set the stage for the change of policy, said Hopkins.
"It was just ludicrous to spend council money scrubbing off works of art that people actually liked -- it was a tourist attraction."
Bristol has a long tradition of urban art, much of it centered on the run-down Stokes Croft area in the city center.
The side of one building in the district, formerly covered in scrawled aerosol signatures, or tags, has been transformed with a mural of a vast red wave in the style of 19th century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai.
Local activist and street artist Chris Chalkley said such well-executed urban paintings actually improved the local environment and discouraged teenage graffiti.
"It generates a sense of community and sense of pride and respect in the area," said Chalkley, chairman of community activist body the People's Republic of Stokes Croft.
And such regeneration can come cheap. "You can make a big change with a small pot of paint," he said.
The only expenditure for the red wave mural was the 300 pounds' worth of masonry paint used -- the artists worked for free.
Bristol's policy contrasts with other councils, such as Westminster in central London which last year ordered the Royal Mail to remove a Banksy mural from the side of a building.
The 7-meter-high painting showed a police officer filming a small girl while she paints the words "One nation under CCTV."
Westminster deputy leader Robert Davis said at the time: "I take the view that this is graffiti and if you condone this then what is the difference between this and all the other graffiti you see scrawled across the city?"
Editing by Steve Addison