Archaeology: getting historic sites recognised before development
A 30-year war
25 October 2017
Tim Howard reports on archaeologists’ ongoing fight to get historic sites in England recognised and evaluated when threatened by development
In January 1990, the Chartered Surveyor Weekly ran the optimistic headline: 'EH [English Heritage] wins the battle for Historic London'. It drew attention to the need for further guidance to replace the outdated 1987 government circular on planning and the historic environment, following the huge outcry over a development that threatened the remains of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre.
Although the article accurately foresaw the publication later that year of Planning Policy Guidance (PPG) 16: Planning and Archaeology, which embedded developer funding for archaeology in the planning system, its author could not have foreseen that, 30 years later, archaeologists would still be waging the same war throughout England. Indeed, the closing words of the article still resonate today: 'Developers are likely to welcome anything which will remove the present uncertainties.'
This is not the fault of current planning policy and guidance. PPG 16 and its successors – Planning Policy Statement 5: Planning for the Historic Environment and, latterly, the historic environment section of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – have provided a generally sound basis for the management and protection of the historic environment in England. Similar documents have been published in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Even with developer funding, the planning process cannot function properly if there is insufficient public money to ensure that there is appropriate oversight
The requirement for a desk-based assessment, and for a field evaluation in appropriate cases, has provided a crucial means of establishing the significance of archaeological remains, and the obligation to research sites that face destruction to enable development has allowed remains such as the Royal Saxon tomb at Prittlewell in Essex and the Bronze Age settlement at Must Farm in Cambridgeshire to be investigated and their stories told.
But more than this, the systems established have revolutionised the collection of data relating to the historic environment, providing the basis for the growing discipline of archaeological science and changing our understanding of many complex issues such as trade patterns, population movements and environmental change.
The difficulty is that the recession and austerity of recent years have left a worsening legacy of public underfunding.
The budgets of local authority archaeological services – which play a key role in advising planning authorities and ensuring sustainable development – have been slashed. Some have closed, and others are struggling to meet the demands of weighty planning lists.
Even with developer funding, the planning process cannot function properly if there insufficient public money to ensure appropriate oversight, however good the policy and guidance regulating that process may be.
Although this has been recognised in the recent white paper on housing, at least with regard to planning services generally, it has not yet led to any improvement for beleaguered local authority archaeological and historic environment services.
The recession has also fostered the view in some quarters that environmental regulations and planning are largely to blame for the failure to kick-start our economy. This was reflected in the government’s 2015 productivity plan Fixing the Foundations, which stated:
'This plan addresses particular challenges in the form of a planning system regarded by many as one of the most significant constraints facing the economy, bringing delay and inflexibility'.
In 2011 Alan Melton, then the leader of Fenland District Council, had already dismissed archaeological and other environmental controls in the planning system, saying:
'The bunny-huggers won’t like this, but if they wish to inspect a site, they can do it when the footings are being dug out.'
Government solutions as proposed in Fixing the Foundations are also likely to be highly damaging, not just for archaeology but also – as the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists has pointed out repeatedly – for the timely provision of the sustainable development that government so craves.
The Housing and Planning Act 2016 introduced the concept of 'permission in principle' to give certainty to developers at an early stage in the process, without the need to get bogged down in detail. It also paved the way for registers of brownfield land, and made provision for permission in principle to be conferred automatically on housing sites identified in local and neighbourhood plans and on the registers, with a view to accelerating housing development.
But Dr Hugh Ellis of the Town and Country Planning Association spoke with the voice of experience when he gave evidence on the bill to the select committee that examined it.
'The most important issue is a fundamental planning principle that has not been discussed, which is that the detail and the general principle are intimately related,' he said.
'Anyone who does planning will tell you that you cannot make a decision in principle about a site until you know the detail of its flood risk appraisal and the degree of affordable housing you want ... To try to split principle and detail as if they are not connected in reality is extremely dangerous. Understanding the principle of a site means you have to understand the detail of its implications.'
What the act did not do was recognise the fundamental changes to archaeological practice and procedure that such provisions would necessitate, or the problems of funding that they pose. Before the act, any necessary archaeological assessment and evaluation was generally carried out at the application stage and at the developer’s expense, even where sites were already allocated in local plans. In the new world, such assessment and evaluation will have to be commissioned as part of the local and neighbourhood plan process, which will slow down rather than speed up plan-making.
Furthermore, who will pay for such work remains to be seen, particularly in the case of brownfield registers where the duty is on the local authority to identify sites, many of which may not have a developer promoting them that is able to meet the cost of necessary works. Certainly, hard-pressed local authorities are not in a position to fund such works.
If in practice inadequate archaeological assessment and evaluation is carried out before granting permission in principle, as is feared, this is unlikely to offer the certainty that developers seek. The discovery of heritage assets or human remains that should be scheduled will delay development; even where the presence of archaeological remains would not preclude the granting of permission, viability issues may in some cases arise at the technical details stage when significant archaeological work is required. This is not a theoretical risk: by definition brownfield sites are, in archaeological terms, more likely to be environmentally sensitive than are greenfield ones.
Neither is the act an isolated threat to archaeology. In recent years government policy has been remorselessly deregulatory, with an accent on streamlining and speed.
Piecemeal changes proposed to the NPPF to increase the weight accorded to housing and other development represent death by a thousand cuts, and the ubiquitous extension of permitted development rights – along, for instance, with a drive for greater use of simplified planning zones and the introduction of planning freedoms – pose a great threat for the historic environment. Without a planning application, the ability to safeguard the historic environment is gravely undermined.
The Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 has brought forward proposals to allow the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to proscribe defined types of conditions and to provide that pre-commencement conditions can only be imposed with the agreement of the developer.
The latter proposal could seriously undermine the operation of archaeological conditions, and prompted a petition that received more than 18,000 signatures in a matter of weeks. Although the government has assured the archaeological community that these measures are not aimed at them, it has not exempted archaeological conditions from the requirement. A local authority can refuse an application in the absence of an agreement, but again, this makes certainty the victim, and means there is potential for planning by inquiry to replace the plan-led system.
The irony is that we have planning policy that is pragmatic and receptive to the needs of the historic environment and archaeology, as well as to the need for development and managed change to heritage assets, that has been developed over the past 30 years by English Heritage – now Historic England – and others in the sector.
If we are not careful, this struggle may have been for nothing. We do not want another Rose Theatre debacle; but the prospects of history repeating itself seem higher than ever.
Tim Howard is Senior Policy Advisor at the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists