Group of members of the public cluster around a man who is speaking while referring to a notebook.
Speakers' Corner, Hyde Park, London. Photographed by John Gay, 1960-1962 © Historic England Archive. AA099700 Find more photos
Speakers' Corner, Hyde Park, London. Photographed by John Gay, 1960-1962 © Historic England Archive. AA099700 Find more photos

Join the Debate: What You Told Us

To join our debate on archaeology and planning we are asking you to tell us: “What’s your view of the main planning issues facing archaeology today?”

Thank you to all who answer. We'll publish your responses below. The 'modified' date shown at the top of the page indicates when the page was last updated.

Historic England welcomes debate, and invites comment on these articles (the comments received will be retained on the website for as long as a particular edition of Heritage Online Debate is live). The comments displayed are the opinion of the contributor, and do not represent Historic England’s position.

The most important issue is the government desire to deregulate the planning process, despite the fact that archaeology within the planning process works well as a way of avoiding last-minute hitches to development and enhances public understanding of the past. If archaeology is not enshrined in planning law it will be one of the first requirements to be ignored by developers.

Another issue is the weakness of local authorities in enforcing planning conditions due to staffing cuts over the past decade. There are insufficient staff to set planning conditions and to ensure they are followed. If there are opportunities to ignore conditions or challenge them in court, developers will exploit them and the local authorities will be unable to act.
Saturday 30 January 2021
As is well described here the problems we face are the impending reforms to the planning process. Although probably not designed to remove protections for archaeology they have certainly been designed without considering it (or any mention whatsoever!).

Why has this happened and why is all that we have achieved in 30 years at risk? I wonder if we have solved the ‘problem’ of archaeology and development demonstrated by The Rose Theatre debacle a little too well. Having project managed and professionalised what was once a passionately defended issue for local communities into a smooth efficient process hidden from public view. Politicians (national and local) and communities are largely unaware of the work we do, perhaps hearing the occasional headline about a major treasure find or a site on a big infrastructure project. From coverage in the news you would assume archaeology was mostly done by metal detectorists or accidentally chanced upon during big projects, rather than taking place in almost every town and village in the land by an army of skilled professionals as part of a process carried out for public benefit.

I feel most people honestly are fascinated by archaeology, especially from the places they live and care about. But the public and politicians have little awareness we exist and have a system taking place behind the scenes to save it for them. There is little understanding that cuts to local government archaeology advice could have any negative consequences for local people, the economy or environment. There is no fear of any kind of backlash, no vocal local campaigners or powerful national bodies who would hound them for it (unlike nature NGOs or social care bodies). It is an easy ‘back office’ cut to make.

The same goes at a national level where the priority is to build houses in their tens of thousand yesterday. Archaeology is so far down the list of concerns that it didn’t even merit mentioning in the proposals for a reformed system. The blame for this must lie in part at all of our doors. Have we become complacent and inward looking? Who are we really ‘saving’ the archaeology for and whose understanding are we advancing? The NPPF states that the results of archaeological work must be made “publicly accessible”. Note ACCESSIBLE not available. In no other aspect of our lives or work would we feel producing a grey lit report and putting it on OASIS or the local council planning portal was making something accessible. It barely counts as making it publicly available! So hard would it be for an ordinary person to come across the results of an excavation near them via these methods.

The examples here from Greater Manchester or Must Farm are inspiring but they are exceptions, not the norm. For instance I once visited a school and remember being told by the head teacher how they had archaeologists in when they had a new classroom built, but he hadn’t seen much of them (except the bill!) They had been handled at arms length by a planning agent, came and went each day for a few weeks and then disappeared. The teacher (whose school had an archaeology club!!!) was never engaged with, spoken to, or even given a copy of the report. He had no idea until I told him (having looked in the HER) that they had excavated a small Saxon settlement right next to their school.

Archaeology in planning has become in far too many cases an exercise in decontaminating a site prior to development (a planning constraint to be overcome) with no one from the planning officer, the curator, to the client or the archaeologists themselves treating it as an irreplaceable asset to be protected or explored to unlock its enormous potential public benefits. I hope it is not too late to change our ways and start to really engage local communities and politicians with the sites we dig, so archaeology can again be an issue of local concern and conversation.

Archaeology is only protected though planning because people cared about it, and if they cease to care, or it becomes a minority concern of self-interested parties (i.e. us archaeologists!) we can’t be surprised if it and is become surplus to requirements given a recession, housing crisis and a climate emergency.
Friday 29 January 2021
I find there is a disturbing trend where local authorities purchase or inherit parcels of land and add them to their land bank. When a nearby or adjacent landowner is in the early stages of an application, the local authority forms a consortium with the adjacent landowner with the object of bypassing the planning formalities which are expected of a lay applicant.

In these cases the local authority both considers and determines its own application, to the detriment of the public interest. In some cases, this method will involve sites of great cultural and/or archeological significance which may have been used as playgrounds or green spaces which do not impact upon the potential archaeology. I have observed such cases where the authority simply removes the planning clause which is intended to protect playing fields.

The Consortium's application loop will have the advantage of having one of its members as the planning authority itself. Any objections to their application for a development is answered by a statement outlining their duty to provide a certain amount of housing in their catchment, and that the application is decided purely on that basis. The authority may be entirely ignorant of the history both of their site and that of the adjacent landowner. In such cases, the local authority is not qualified to examine a Consortium involving the development. Local conservation groups can only then exercise the option of an application for the listing of the two sites where they have a common boundary.

The outcome of a listing application is entirely dependent on the quality of the evidence, which poses a difficulty, especially where no structures are visible above the ground and only limited documentary or photographic evidence is available due to the antiquity of the sites. This trend poses a real threat to historically valuable sites.
Tuesday 26 January 2021
The provision of advice on archaeology and heritage to planning authorities. Communicating about archaeology and heritage to people, particularly funding decision makers. Expressing the importance of archaeology and heritage in prosperity, health and well-being.
Tuesday 26 January 2021