The recently passed Housing and Planning Act 2016 and the proposed Neighbourhood Planning & Infrastructure Bill were both mentioned on 18 May during the Queen’s Speech to mark the start of the new parliamentary session at Westminster. As the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) has noted in a letter to the Planning Minister, Brandon Lewis sent on 23rd May 2016 (http://new.archaeologyuk.org/news/5786-cba-writes-to-planning-minister-regarding-new-neighbourhood-planning-and-infrastructure-bill) both could have unintended consequences for the way in which archaeology is embedded in the planning process in Britain, but especially in England meaning that 25 years of planning-led archaeology is at risk. Remember archaeology is about the exploration of the physical remains of the human past and to explore it we often have to dig it. The threat of destruction without recording has been so worrying to many that a Parliamentary petition set up on 20 May has already reached more than 12,000 signatures:
Here are some of the reasons why. The CBA observes that ‘the notes for the newly proposed Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill outlined in the Queen’s speech say that the Bill will introduce measures to reform and speed up the planning process by minimizing delays caused by pre-commencement planning conditions. According to the Government, this will include measures “to ensure that pre-commencement planning conditions are only imposed by local planning authorities where they are absolutely necessary”.’ The very brief briefing notes provided by the Government go on to state that “Excessive pre-commencement planning conditions can slow down or stop the construction of homes after they have been given planning permission”.
As the CBA notes ‘whilst this proposed Bill remains vague on the exact definition of the “excessive pre-commencement planning conditions”, archaeology is one of the subjects most likely to be impacted, alongside protections for wildlife’. RESCUE, the trust for British Archaeology, stated that such heritage conditions ‘are only applied when regarded as necessary by the professional archaeologist advising the local planning authority. One English county estimates that less than 1% of applications are subject to an archaeological condition. The suggestion that this may be a misuse of planning conditions is immensely damaging and could move us rapidly back to the [pre-1990] days when developers regarded archaeology as an unquantifiable risk that should be destroyed before anyone noticed it’. http://rescue-archaeology.org.uk/2016/05/19/queens-speech-wednesday-18th-may-2016-new-planning-bill-threat-to-archaeology/
To show how rare, or ‘absolutely necessary’ to quote the phrase used in the briefing notes for the proposed new Bill, archaeology planning conditions are, here are some revealing statistics from Greater Manchester for the financial years 2013/14 and 2014/15. In 2013/14 the annual report produced by the Greater Manchester Archaeological Advisory Service (GMAAS) stated that it dealt with 19,192 planning applications of which 196 or 1% required archaeological planning conditions. In 2014/15 17,276 planning applications were looked at by GMAAS, of which 122 or 0.71% required an archaeological planning condition. Initial study of the statistics for the financial year 2015/16 suggests that 0.72% of planning applications that year needed ‘absolutely necessary’ mitigation to record key archaeological sites ranging from industrial and medieval, to Roman and prehistoric remains. Such conditions are crucial for the identification of heritage assets of archaeological interest which may be present on development sites, especially those which have no statutory protection, which is the majority of our past. The cultural, social and economic worth of all archaeological sites was set out with the implementation of Planning Policy Guidance Number 16 way back in November 1990. This followed long-running campaigns to save the past by the CBA and RESCUE during the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in the planning and publicity fiasco of The Rose Theatre in 1988. Such values range from rarity and significance to setting and integrity.
These principles can be found in the current National Planning Policy Framework issued in 2012. This allows for sites earmarked for development to go through pre-determination assessment and evaluation to ascertain whether sites include, or have the potential to include, heritage assets of archaeological interest. Unfortunately, such conditions are not a statutory requirement, although access to and maintenance of a Historic Environment Record (HER) by a local authority is (see my earlier blogs on the closure of the Lancashire Archaeological Advisory and Planning Service). Some sections of the media, such as The Daily Telegraph newspaper, have even gone so far as to suggest that ‘archaeological and wildlife surveys’ will be ‘swept away’ once this legislation is passed. An interesting observation bearing in mind there is no published text yet for the proposed new bill.
So what can we do about proposals that seemingly go against the wider commitments of the Government to sustainable development and historic environment protections, as set out in the National Planning Policy Framework? I think we need to take this opportunity to raise the profile of archaeology nationally, and to shout about the value of the past and how much people care about it. That includes the 200,000 volunteers who spend annually 20 million hours (equivalent to £175 million in volunteer contribution to society) participating in the discovery and saving of the past each year. The Heritage sector is worth £14 billion annually to the UK economy from tourism to conservation (Historic England 2015, Heritage Counts 2015). The value of the archaeological business sector in 2014/15 was c. £167m, employing 5,452 individuals (Landward Research Ltd 2015, Archaeological Market Survey 2015). Harder to calculate is the social and health benefits for those taking part in uncovering the past, that there is a growing body of data to show the positive impact (Historic England 2016, Heritage and Society).
Let’s take this opportunity to bring archaeology back to the attention of Parliament, for the first time in a generation. Let’s have the future of our past debated in the House. We can do this by signing the Parliamentary Petition here:
It reached 10,000 signatures, which requires a formal Government response, within two days. If we can get the petition to 100,000 signatures then the issue will be considered for debate in Parliament. Let’s use this as an opportunity to make archaeology matter. We can save the exploration of the past and celebrate its results, at the same time.