Sixteen years ago the British Government ushered in a new set of guidelines for the handling of Britain’s rich, rare and fragile archaeological resource; PPG16.
PPG16 brought in a number of planning guidelines that were intended to ensure that the “polluter pays”. In other words the developer would be forced to properly recognise and record any archaeology destroyed as a result of the development. In addition, planners had guidelines for the circumstances under which development would not be allowed – on sites of national and regionally important archaeology.
However, there is an increasing number who argue that this has brought in some unfortunate side effects that have undone the basic principles that PPG16 was meant to enforce; best practice has been transformed into least cost, an increasingly private archaeological sector means that it is the developer that calls the shots.
Back in 1990, many within the archaeological world welcomed the new approach of PPG16; prior to this many planning authorities found it impossible to protect even the more important archaeological sites from development.
The hope was that planning authorities would be able to prevent unsuitable developments and in worst case, would be able to ensure that any archaeology was suitably recorded.
Whilst some archaeologists voiced early concerns about the wisdom of asking the developer (who is not interested in archaeology and has a vested interest in cutting the cost of any archaeological work to the absolute minimum) to ascertain the amount of archaeology, importance and suitable mitigation measures for a development site as part of the application process, most were happy because their was significant strength within the planning authorities and English Heritage to ensure such applications were given proper scrutiny.
However, those voices of concern have returned and have been supplemented by others “People are starting to realise that for this government, “polluter pays” means “polluter underestimates the level of pollution and hires consultants to firmly argue that position” coupled with “planning authority has insufficient staff to investigate and enforce the planning regulations” Said George Chaplin, Chairman of campaign group TimeWatch.org.
Warning indicators first came to light during the late nineties when local authorities decided their heritage units did not offer “best value” and opted to downsize or privatise large sections of them.
Within ten years the number of archaeologists employed by local authorities dropped by as much as 80% with the largest falls happening in the south of England . This has meant that the balance of “power” is increasingly in the hands of the developer.
This downsizing of local authority staffing levels was not combined with any reduction in responsibility for the remaining County staff, in addition, the volume of development applications has increased significantly. This has put the few archaeologists left within the planning authority under enormous pressure.
But now an even greater danger is looming on the horizon, it seems that having got away with shirking their responsibility to properly administer their statutory responsibilities, many local authorities are now looking to drop these responsibilities altogether.
Up until 2006, any significant planning application that passed before a county council in the UK would be accompanied with a report from the county archaeologist; advice was given as to the archaeological potential of a site and the form of mitigation (including refusing the application) that should be placed on the developer.
Then, just a couple of months ago, Northamptonshire County Council announced it was to scrap the position of County Archaeologist ! Closely following this announcement, Surrey announced the downgrading of its senior archaeologist from full time Principal Archaeologist to part-time "Heritage Conservation Team Manager".
Furthermore, there are serious rumours that other counties may be going the same way; The Isle of Wight, Leicestershire and Northumberland have all been mentioned within recent weeks as having serious problems caused by job losses and reorganisations that take emphasis away from statutory responsibilities.
Chris Cumberpatch of RESCUE – The British Archaeological Trust said
‘Rescue is extremely concerned about this situation. Politicians of all parties pay lip service to the notion of ‘the environment’ and ‘green issues’ but on the ground our historic environment is in considerable danger from a lack of statutory protection. In a growing number of counties we are in danger of losing archaeological sites and landscapes which are of immense value and are irreplaceable.”
It seems likely that soon, few counties will have the required expertise even to simply comment on a planning application, let alone offer a considered opinion and follow that with authorative judgement.
In fact a number of counties appear to be saying that archaeology should no longer be a county matter – it should be dealt with at district level! But of course most district authorities do not have the manpower or the easy access to the extensive records held at county level.
This concerning situation is made even worse by the fact that cuts and changes in direction within English Heritage mean that it too may be no longer able to deal with major planning issues; fewer staff are available to deal with planning issues and they tend to be focussed on those likely to hit the news. These days English Heritage seems to concern itself much more with tourism than it does with protecting Britain ’s historic environment.
“Deep cuts to the budget of English Heritage appear to be forcing this organisation to withdraw from many areas which they ought to be involved in” Said Chris Cumberpatch.
According to George Chaplin of TimeWatch.org this is simply a typical example of government “environmental spin”. “There are very few indications that this government is serious about the environment at all” Said George Chaplin, Chairman of TimeWatch,org “We are seeing “green taxes” such as the Aggregates Levy being used to pay the costs of destroying some of Britain’s most important archaeological sites and also to help provide positive PR for the firms involved when the whole point of the tax is to try to prevent such developments, in addition, our watchdogs have had their teeth taken out and now they are being removed altogether. This is not good for the environment and it is not good for heritage”.
The outcome of all this has lead some to claim that planning authorities are now more concerned with avoiding litigation from muscular corporates than enforcing planning rules; many larger developers are effectively able to “write their own ticket” – their consultants providing questionable analysis of the archaeological potential of a site with little hope of challenge from the planners.
This means that a large number of extremely important archaeological sites have been lost, with many more to come. The cost of that loss to the developer in many cases will be little more than a watching brief, regardless of the importance of the archaeology discovered.