A photograph of seven people on the excavation site of a Rail Carriage and Iron Foundry site, showing building remains and footings.
Members of Manchester Regional Industrial Archaeology Society help SLR Consulting excavate the mid-19th century Ashbury’s Rail Carriage and Iron Foundry site © SLR Consulting
Members of Manchester Regional Industrial Archaeology Society help SLR Consulting excavate the mid-19th century Ashbury’s Rail Carriage and Iron Foundry site © SLR Consulting

Public Benefit from Planning-Led Archaeology: a Greater Manchester Perspective

By Norman Redhead, Director, Greater Manchester Archaeological Advisory Service​

The planning context

Greater Manchester Archaeological Advisory Service (GMAAS) provides archaeological planning advice to the 10 Greater Manchester planning authorities. We advise on the archaeological implications of proposed development. We also recommend planning conditions to secure programmes of archaeological work that deliver public benefit.

The general approach is to follow the NPPF policy of proportionality. As such, where there is clear evidence for significant and extensive archaeological remains to be uncovered during archaeological excavation, we can set out a detailed requirement for dissemination and public engagement. However, for many applications the archaeology is not sufficiently well defined to do this at the decision-making stage. It is therefore important that the planning condition provides enough flexibility to allow the level of public engagement to be determined later, once we have a better understanding of the significance of the archaeology.

Public engagement in practice

Experience in Greater Manchester has shown that there are many ways of engaging with the public during and after archaeological investigations. A proportional response is necessary, but it’s also often about individual circumstances and opportunities.

At the lowest end of the scale, where the archaeological results of investigations are of limited interest, they are put on to the Historic Environment Record and the report is made publicly accessible.

The next level up might be to require an information board commemorating the heritage of the site. In the historic cores of Manchester and Salford many developments have involved the total removal of the historic footprint of a site such as for basement car parking. For these, information boards provide a sense of history and place to the incoming new residents, as well as to the existing community.

Public engagement in practice gallery

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

Where the archaeological investigations have been extensive and the results tell an important story, GMAAS also advocates a popular publication. The ‘Greater Manchester Past Revealed’ series provides a set format for archaeological organisations to publish significant archaeology from commercial, research or community projects in an attractive, easy-to-read, well-illustrated style. Developers fund a print run of 1,000 copies which are given away freely to members of the local community, new residents, the developer’s contacts, planners and councillors, libraries and museums, schools and other interested people. Once supplies are exhausted a pdf of the booklet is put on the Greater Manchester Archaeology Festival website.

GMAAS are flexible on internal design so long as the booklet is clearly recognisable as part of the series. These booklets provide good public relations for the developer at a reasonable cost and deliver considerable public benefit.

At the upper end of the scale, when developments impact on highly significant heritage assets, public benefit is often secured to help offset any negative impact.

The development of the 19th century Ashbury’s Rail Carriage and Iron Works in East Manchester by Network Rail included an archaeology programme with an academic article and a popular publication. It also included the requirement to engage with volunteers from the Manchester Region Industrial Archaeology Society who were able to take part in the excavation run by SLR Consulting. The volunteers lent their considerable expertise on identifying the function of industrial features. The resulting popular booklet won the national industrial archaeology publication award.

Excavation ahead of development on the site of the late-18th century New Bailey Reform Prison site in Salford saw Salford Archaeology liaise with the developer to run a two-week volunteer dig on part of the site. The wider archaeological and historical context of New Bailey Prison was also set out in an exhibition in the foyer of the adjacent Salford Central railway station. This has allowed the story of Salford’s archaeology to be seen by thousands of passing commuters.

Oxford Archaeology North (OAN) recently excavated extensive areas of early-19th century workers’ housing in Angels Meadow, an area made infamous by Friedrich Engels’ 1840s descriptions of the working class in England. There was tremendous interest from the public with around 1,000 visitors on a public open day. The Angels Meadow excavation saw OAN establish a blog site which includes video clips of archaeologists describing the site.


The experience of achieving successful public benefit from development projects in Greater Manchester has demonstrated the importance of building good working relations with planning authorities (both officers and Councillors), developers, archaeological contractors, local communities and special interest groups. This takes time, resources and expertise, all of which have been greatly helped by the GMAAS partnership between the local authorities and the University of Salford. The university context has proved to be important in providing expertise in research and public archaeology, especially for the archaeology of the industrial period, some of which is of national or international significance. The importance of the local government role in achieving public value from our industrial heritage through the planning system is also integral to Historic England’s developing Industrial Heritage Strategy.

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