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Austerity and house building boom mean British archaeology is in severe danger

The skies aren’t all blue. gui jun peng/from

George Osbourne has just announced that government departments have to find £3 billion in savings over the next year. The Department of Communities and Local Government will have a reduction of £230 million from its £8 billion budget this year alone. Promises have been made that local authority budgets will not be affected, but I doubt many are convinced that these will be upheld.

The system of archaeological protection, introduced during the last majority Conservative government of the early 1990s, has begun to creak under the strain. Pressure on public services has hit local authority provision for archaeology, and seriously impacts how its is protected.

Only 5% of England’s heritage is designated and protected by law. The rest depends on protection through local authority archaeology and conservation advisers, who ensure the planning process for building work takes into account any impacts on the historic environment.

Building frenzy

On May 21 2015, Brandon Lewis, the housing minister, announced that the construction of housing was at its highest levels for six years. Despite this recovery from recession, the Home Builders Federation continue to argue for deregulation and streamlining in the planning system – an agenda which often views historic environment protections as a pesky barrier to development.

But at the same time resources to local planning authorities are being squeezed and staff are struggling to uphold protections under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). The NPPF sets out the government’s requirements for what is “relevant, proportionate and necessary” to the planning system and cuts through what the government consider to be red tape. This is forcing authorities to accept development that is unsustainable.

The impact of development on “heritage assets” – that is, archaeological sites, monuments or historic buildings – are material considerations during the planning process. Archaeological work in advance of construction is normally recommended and overseen by specialist archaeological officers from the relevant local government authority. The data gathered after this advice and recommendation is recorded in the associated Historic Environment Records. This data is held for future reference during the planning process, and used as a resource for research and public engagement.

Historic Environment Records and archaeological planning advice are public services. They provide support and advice for business, opportunities for education, social and cultural activities, and add a sense of time depth to landscape and townscape, enhancing local environments. These factors, drawn from the important but barely recognised work of archaeological protection in the UK planning system, support the creation of better places to live, work and stay.

Not a luxury

But these public services are not protected. Many specialist posts are being reduced or made redundant, at a time when there is a record push for development of housing and business premises, especially on brownfield and green belt land. There has been a 32% reduction in specialist historic environment advice in local authorities since 2006, and the equivalent of 45 full time jobs have been lost (11%) between 2013 and 2014 alone. As planning applications have risen during this time, this continuing decline in local authority capacity puts archaeology at serious risk.

The benefits of this archaeological work eventually make their way to the nation’s museums and archives. And even this storage, and the important dissemination of these discoveries to both the public and researchers, is at risk in a climate of financial austerity.

Research by the Society of Museum Archaeologists has discovered that museums in 47 local authorities were unable to accept archives due to storage issues and budget cuts. In 2012, there were 9,000 undepositable archaeological archives in England. That’s 9,000 (and no doubt more since) archives with data and objects that cannot be seen or accessed by the public. This means researchers may not be aware of their existence, or be able to synthesise this new knowledge into our archaeological understanding.

There is a tendency to think that archaeology, museums and heritage sites are a luxury when allocating ever-diminishing funds at local authority level. But there is plenty of data demonstrating the economic benefits of heritage and archaeology; recent research suggests the heritage-based tourism economy alone directly accounts for at least £5 billion in GDP and 134,000 jobs.

Despite the huge importance of heritage to tourism, the construction process, businesses, local communities, and the education, well-being and enjoyment of the population, the impacts of these budget cuts on archaeological protection, archiving and public enjoyment of their own local heritage are all too frequently overlooked.

Our ability to protect our collective past is at risk. When will these issues finally gain the political attention they deserve?

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