As if war, iconoclasm, looting, antiquities theft, collecting and poverty weren’t enough of a threat to global archaeology, over the last few weeks a new danger raised its head. Having decided that we don’t build enough houses in the UK, the current government has decided to lay the blame for this on ‘red tape’, and is proposing to reduce such bureaucratic obstacles in the imaginatively titled Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill (NPIB).
Although the text of the NPIB hasn’t been written yet, indications are that the Bill will ‘ensure that pre-commencement planning conditions are only imposed by local planning authorities where they are absolutely necessary’. This is not necessarily a bad thing. When I worked in pre-planning archaeology (writing desk-based assessments predicting the type of archaeology likely to be present on any given development site), I saw a large number of proposals and the pre-planning changes required by Local Authority Planners. Some were sane and sensible. Others . . less so! It’s entirely reasonable to consider whether planning conditions are always ‘necessary’.
But there is a risk to archaeology from the NPIB. Unknown archaeological material, and known but less significant remains (i.e. those that are not Scheduled Monuments), are not protected by statute in the UK. Instead, they are protected under current planning policy (and its more famous forerunner PPG16). The resulting process ensures that both planners and developers know what archaeology is likely to be on a given site, through initial desk-based assessment and subsequent onsite field evaluation, if necessary. It means that any archaeological work can be programmed into the development, and costs and delays kept to a minimum. The excavation of the Elizabethan Rose Theatre, where Shakespeare first rose to prominence, demonstrates the kind of problems, delays and expense faced by government, planning authority and developer in the days before the current system was put into place (as this post shows). The system isn’t perfect, and depends very much on the thoroughness of the planning authority and the archaeological contractor, but it works very well and has given us many exciting new finds, including the King of Prittlewell, a nationally significant find that made the headlines, and was found only a few miles from where I’m writing this.
The problem with the NPIB is that archaeological work is currently almost always enforced under planning condition. I have no doubt that even under the NPIB many planning authorities will consider archaeological planning conditions ‘absolutely necessary’ and continue to use them. The risk is that archaeology will be seen as an easy target, a scapegoat for the many other things which can and do hold up development (not least of which is opposition from local people), something planners can omit to appease developers and central government in the demand for faster housing. The Telegraph is already leading the charge to lump archaeology in the those things that are unnecessary brakes on development and should be swept away. We need to ensure that that doesn’t happen, while welcoming better planning legislation. Everything depends on how this law is drafted. So we need to show government how important it is that archaeology is protected, that reasonable archaeological work doesn’t hold up development and that the current system is far better than some ad-hoc process where development is delayed by exciting archaeological finds that were unexpected and weren’t planned for.
This isn’t just a matter for UK archaeology. Many of the techniques, skills, and the actual archaeologists, that are used around the world, have been fostered by planning archaeology in the UK. At a time when we have unprecedented looting and destruction of archaeological sites in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, how can we lobby for better protection, for more stringent laws against illegal antiquities in the UK and internationally, if the UK government is reducing protection for the archaeological sites in its own backyard? When population growth threatens archaeological sites (in Egypt for example), the type of pre-development excavation that has been employed in the UK and elsewhere could be used to record (and so extract the scientific information from) archaeological sites, while permitting an expanding population the space it needs. The reversal of archaeological protection here is a matter of wider significance beyond archaeologists, archaeological organisations and academics working with UK material.
If we do not fight for UK archaeology, if the NPIB is used to undermine archaeological protection, then it sends out the message that archaeology doesn’t really matter. This would undermine UK involvement in many of the causes that matter to archaeologists all over the world including;
- Efforts to improve laws against illegal antiquities;
- International cooperation between UK and foreign governments in the prevention of looting and repatriation of stolen antiquities;
- Preventing museums selling artefacts on the international market;
- Government protection and investment in archaeological sites across the globe.
Various UK archaeological organisations are busy lobbying to ensure their voice is heard, but there is also a a petition (or there’s this one if you live outside the UK) to sign to demonstrate how important it is to you that future legislation continues to protect archaeology and ensure it is dealt with in a timely manner, for the benefit of everyone. If you have an interest in archaeology, no matter what type, I urge you to sign it because this is about all of our past and is a matter for everyone with an interest in archaeology, no matter what continent!