In July 2013 a report on local government staff resources allocated to archaeology and building conservation was issued jointly by English Heritage, the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers (ALGAO), and the Institute of Historic Building Conservation1. The report outlined unequivocally the significant decline in the availability of the specialist advice that local authorities require if they are to deal properly and responsibly with our archaeological and built heritage. The downward trend in the provision of services began in 2006 and has seen the numbers of archaeological advisors, including Historic Environment Records (HER) officers, fall by 28% while the decline in the numbers of Conservation officers has been marked even more at 33%. In the past 12 months the number of archaeological specialists has fallen by 3% and conservation officers by 4%. There is no sign of this ceasing and with further cuts to local authority budgets planned for the financial year 2013-2014, the situation will continue to worsen.
A crisis in the planning system
The report shows the ongoing drop in the capacity of local councils to deal adequately with archaeological and historic sites within our towns, cities and countryside. The findings from the report confirm the anecdotal information collected by RESCUE over the same period, which indicates that heritage services are amongst the first to be targeted by local authorities when cuts are required to meet central government spending targets. Specific examples include the closure of the Merseyside HER and the withdrawal of advice to five local authorities (Knowsley, Liverpool, Sefton, St Helens & The Wirral) in a region that includes the Liverpool Waterfront World Heritage Site. Other areas affected by severe cuts include Portsmouth and the West Midlands where Sandwell and Dudley no longer have HERs, Walsall has no archaeological officer and the archaeology and historic buildings of Birmingham are now the responsibility of one individual. Such actions are directly contrary to the government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF)2 which states:
‘Local planning authorities should have up-to-date evidence about the historic environment in their area and use it to assess the significance of heritage assets and the contribution to their environment. …Local planning authorities should either maintain or have access to a historic environment record (NPPF paragraph 169).’
Government and the value of culture
In a speech delivered at the British Museum on 24th April 20133, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Maria Miller, drew attention to the immense value of culture (including heritage) to the economy. RESCUE questions the logic of emphasising the economic importance of our heritage while at the same time allowing spending to fall to the extent that the historic environment is no longer effectively protected4. The loss of local authority staff posts, a direct result of the government’s imposition of unrealistic spending limits on local authorities, indicates a catastrophic gap between rhetoric and reality.
Why does it matter?
An effective, professionally staffed HER and advice service is critical to ensuring that threats to archaeological sites posed by development are recognised, that appropriate mitigation schemes are put in place, and subsequent fieldwork is of a high standard to allow accurate and worthwhile interpretation of the results. Without the capacity to undertake these functions developers are at risk of being under-prepared for encountering archaeological material during construction works, and important new archaeological sites, such as the spectacular Anglo-Saxon princely burial at Prittlewell and the large Iron Age and Roman site recently discovered in Peterborough will be damaged or lost as a result.
The government has responsibilities under international agreements (notably the Valetta Convention5) to ensure that heritage is protected. By failing to ensure the existence of a robust system of planning and development control they not only abrogating their responsibilities to international commitments, but also risking the loss of unique heritage assets resulting in cultural and economic impoverishment.
Facing up to the crisis
- In order to halt this decline, a cross-party commitment to the following reforms of heritage protection is required:
- To make the provision of conservation and archaeological advisory services charged with the safeguarding of the historic and built environment a statutory obligation on all local authorities;
- Make the provision of a fully resourced HER a statutory obligation on all local authorities;
- To make access to a HER free for all citizens, community groups, research students, academics and others with a legitimate interest in the historic environment.
It is essential that local and regional museums are adequately resourced in order to be able to undertake the care and conservation of the written records, artefacts and other material that are the result of all archaeological fieldwork.
A future for our past?
RESCUE believes that Britain is close to the point at which the provision of services designed to safeguard our historic environment is no longer adequate to meet the challenges that present themselves on a day-to-day basis.
“Local planning authorities should have up-to-date evidence about the historic environment in their area and use it to assess the significance of heritage assets and the contribution to their environment.”
In spite of the publication of reports by heritage organisations and expressions of concern when a specific archaeological site or historic building is lost, the catalogue of losses continues to expand. At what stage will we decide to act collectively to support under-resourced and vulnerable services and thus ensure that our historic sites and landscapes receive the protection that they require through the planning process?
Will we rise to meet this challenge as we did in the early 1970s or will future generations look back on the early 21st century as the time when we abandoned our past to short-termism and financial expediency?
5 Details of the terms of the Valetta Convention
RESCUE contends that Britain is in breach of Articles 2 (i), 4 (iii) and 5 (i, ii and iii) of the Convention as a direct result of government policy.
Dr Chris Cumberpatch
RESCUE – The British Archaeological Trust