Fenland Council plan to scrap all pre-development archaeological assessment – roundup

Yesterday news of a Fenland Council announcement hit Twitter/Facebook and caused some real and unsurprising outrage amongst heritage people. I’ve done some digging to better understand the situation, so I thought I would share it with you.

First written, Jun 23, 13:20. Last update: 14:24 on Jun 27th 2011. I’m afraid that due to needing to prepare for a coming week of experimental metallurgy, I haven’t been able to keep up with the debate after this point, so the below blog post only covers the early developments. The Facebook group has become a focal point for keeping track of the issue, so I encourage you to take a look there.

If you feel strongly about the issues discussed below, please consider signing the petition to object.

Check out the discussion of the NPPF below which looks like it could be an attempt by central government to deregulate planning protection and open up current law to allow local councils to push aside archaeological and heritage protections. It’s important we keep an eye on this – it could pose a real threat to cultural heritage.

The speech

On the 21st of June at the 4th annual Cambs Times/Wisbech Standard/Fenland Council Building and Design Awards final, at Wisbech Boathouse, Alan Melton, the leader of the Fenland Council, gave a “defining policy statement and announcement of the year” (his words). This, and the fact that Cllr Melton is the Council Leader, seems to suggest that the speech should not be dismissed as hyperbole or off-target comment, and probably does represent the intentions of the Council. In addition if we examine the NPPF and budget documents discussed below (see Government Policy Angles below) Cllr Melton’s words fit perfectly within the governments push to solve economic problems by ‘prioritising growth’ over any other aspect, including the environment, heritage, etc.

He stated that conservation rules would be relaxed and areas “zoned for development” in order to provide 11,000-16,000 new homes. He referred to the laws governing conservation of heritage and the environment as “scriptures of the new religion” and to those that supported them as “bunny huggers”. The EDP ran a piece on it the following day – you can view it here. One interesting quote:

“I can announce tonight, that from the 1st July. A requirement for an Archaeological dig/survey will not be required. The requirement will no longer feature at pre-app. Or form part of the committee agenda. With one exception, in local known historical areas, such as next to a 1000 year old church. Common sense will prevail! (Neale Wade springs to mind) 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.

The term ‘bunny huggers’ appears to originate from an interview by Prince Phillip with the BBC, where he used it to describe those who are vocal about animal welfare. Cllr Melton’s use of the phrase seems calculated both to appeal to a certain type of person, and to be intentionally insulting to archaeologists, though other Conservatives have brushed over this as simply not great “but it sure beats the sort of dry, flavourless, super-politically-correct speeches we hear so often from other areas.  And frankly, it was obviously a flippant and humorous remark – the diggers and delvers don’t need to get so upset about it.” I hadn’t realised politics had devolved to the point where simply insulting those you don’t agree with is acceptable activity.

The full text of his speech can be found here and on the Wisbech Standard site here. The Wisbech Standard followed up with an article on Thursday afternoon detailing some of the archaeological objections, and an almost identical article appeared on the EDP site about the same time.

The Councillor

It should be pointed out that Conservative Cllr Melton (c.59) used to be a bricklayer and then building site manager (see email below), so he probably has intimate knowledge of the construction process from the perspective of a developer, and I imagine a great deal of friends and networks in the development industry. He is currently listed as being a freelance quantity surveyor, health and safety consultant and project manager. Fenland Citizen listed his achievements in 2005 as almost entirely related to his ability to ensure development went ahead. He refers to “experiences I endured in a former life” which would suggest he has a negative outlook on archaeological and conservation requirements. He has just been re-elected in the May 5th 2011 elections.

It seems fair to assume a certain level of conflict of interest on this topic.

It is also interesting to note that Cllr Melton was suspended as Fenland Council Leader in 2005 for bringing his office into disrepute by disclosing confidential information to a local journalist. The suspension was the result of Cllr Melton revealing to a journalist that he has been found innocent of previous complaints to the Standards committee, prior to that ruling becoming public. It is unclear what those previous complaints concerned, however this may be linked to his stepping down as Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Rural Commission in 2005 (thanks to eagle-eyed Matt for that).

Emails to Cllr Melton

With Cllr Melton’s personal email address available on his Fenland Council page, many archaeologists have been sending him emails asking him politely to clarify his comments. One early reply to an enquiry is as follows:

Long live Eric Pickles

Eric Pickles is the Secretary for State for Communities and Local Government, a member of the Conservative party and was Chairman of the Party until 2010. Several emails have been submitted to Mr Pickles to see if he does agree with Cllr Melton, who seems to be somewhat of a fan.

Later in the day (Thursday) some slightly more intelligent responses were received:

In a former life I was a building manager, and I know just how costly these investigations are. Particularly after the site has been criss-crossed with trenches, or site stripped. Footing excavation is normally to a 1M depth. Why not inspect with building control officers. Or is that too simple!
It is interesting that the of the comments I have received, only those with vested interests have shown alarm with no compromise. As I matter of interest, I am going to commission a survey of all digs over a period of years, and just find out how many have yielded anything of interest.
I also intend to make my comments available to the Minister.”

Yes. Vested interests in the protection of our archaeological heritage and environment, and thousands of jobs. I think this reply is indicative of a lack of understanding of archaeology at all – what exactly counts as “of interest” to the councillor?

Cllr Melton also emailed Conservative colleagues to say the following late on Thursday:

I don’t tweet, but what a wonderful day. To be attacked by bunny huggers, historic lefties and the vested interested professional classes. Eric Pickles will be extremely proud of me.

I wonder if he realises that ‘professional class’ excavators and local government workers often earn barely above the minimum wage, and do the job because we want to add to human knowledge and to protect the valuable remains of our past. We don’t do it for profit, which isn’t something which can be said of most developers.

Clearly this behaviour is unfitting for an elected councillor, let alone the leader of a local council. A Freedom of Information request regarding archaeological heritage and bunny huggers, also detailed here, so it will be interesting to see what he has been saying about archaeology behind closed doors (or rather closed screens).

The archaeological reaction

The news that a local council is intending to summarily dismiss planning legislation and guidelines, potentially acting against EU and UK laws in the process, has caused significant shock and a wave of anger and depression across archaeologists on the web and social networks.

Over at Digging the Dirt, an excavation archaeologists’ website, this has been summed up as an attempt to remove all archaeological planning conditions beyond watching briefs – though Cllr Melton’s words to me make it unlikely that they’ll even require the later. Digging the Dirt take an irreverent approach, a reaction to what seems like a truly farcical, unimaginable, ludicrous move by Fenland Council. They followed up with another entry on Friday the 24th, raising a very good point concerning the lack of any concrete statements of intent from any of the major archaeological organisations – CBA, IfA or English Heritage. These are the organisations we pay to lobby on behalf of the archaeological heritage, we expect something more than hot-air in response to this issue.

The Institute for Archaeologists released a pre-statement statement, stating  that they are contacting Fenland Council to ascertain what this statement by Cllr Melton actually means. Still waiting on the actual statement from the IfA.

On the BritArch email list discussion has taken place, at least twice, along with sharing of Cllr Melton’s responses to individual emails, including some rather strange and perhaps illogical statements by the councillor. Interpretation of these would seem to suggest that he has a fundamental lack of understanding of archaeology, and archaeological practice. In addition it is suggested he lacks an understanding of UK and EU planning legislation.

On BAJR Federation, an archaeologists’ forum and website, there have been a number of threads. Cllr Melton’s words have been interpreted as hypocritical – the Conservatives continue to ‘bang-on’ about heritage whilst clearly assigning it no real value – and again question whether Cllr Melton really understands planning structure within the Fenland Council itself. Do they not have their own plans which took years to design and implement and which, presumably, cannot be simply discarded?

Council for British Archaeology have issued a statement as part of The Archaeology Forum  criticising what they see as “business-led planning that may find it too much to resist the temptation of setting aside inconvenient truths about the impact of development on the historic and natural environment”. The statement indicates that they are in discussion with English Heritage and Cambridgeshire County Council to try and get some statement from Fenland Council or another body over Cllr Melton’s statements. They close with a pointed remark about what this says about the enaction of the Conservatives’ ‘localism’ agenda which is heavily reliant on ‘business-led’ and deregulated developments.

Rescue – The British Archaeological Trust (a member of The Archaeology Forum) have issued a statement here (Friday 24th June pm). They stated their fundamental disagreement with Cllr Melton’s statements in very clear terms, and underlined the point that many people are making – that no matter how dire the economic situation, you cannot sacrifice the resources of the future to short-term gain. They also repeat the existence of EU laws regarding the protection of heritage – which we may have to rely on in the near future.

On Facebook there is a group to facilitate gathering information and communication in order to opposed the plans announced by Cllr Melton – you can join it here.

There have been limited blog responses, though there’s one here at Janet E Davis’ blog, where she discusses the fact that archaeologists of all people don’t really like rabbits and the term ‘bunny hugger’ (used as an insult by Cllr Melton) is rather inappropriately applied! Another good one was posted on Thursday 23rd at Letters from Li Dongni, which discussed Cllr Melton’s rather misleading statement that if archaeological investigation hadn’t cost so much, more money could be sent on teachers/schools. As the author indicates, archaeological excavations cut into the developers profit, not the school’s budget for teaching. Make sure you read the comments – the author makes a fantastic defence against a rather cowardly comment regarding their ‘vested interests’ somehow making the authors objections entirely unimportant.

On Monday 27th June a letter signed by 32 leading archaeologists was published in the Cambridgeshire Times and Wisbech Standard. I hardly expected that to mean all of the leading academic heads of university departments across the country and a number from the US and Sweden; the Chair of the Local Government Association of Archaeologists; the Editor of Antiquity, managing directors of a number of archaeological units; the Director of the Council for British Archaeology; the Research Manager and Curators of the British Museum, deputy vice chancellor of Cambridge University, and Lord Renfrew. When they said leading, they meant it!

In addition it seems that CBA director Mike Heyworth will be speaking on Radio 4 on the afternoon of Monday 27th June regarding this matter – colloquially termed bunnygate.

It remains to be seen whether Cllr Melton will issue an intelligent response to these inquiries, or whether we will receive clarifications from Fenland Council or Cambridgeshire Council over exactly what they really mean.

Wider reactions

So far there have been very limited reactions in the press, and no national press articles (that I have been able to track down). The Wisbech Standard and EDP are local papers running very similar (presumably the same author) pieces at the moment (see above), but the EDP does have a reader poll on its current article page – you can find it half-way down in a box embedded in the text. You have to vote to see the answers – but they currently sit around 90%+ against the relaxation of rules. The Cambridgeshire Times also has a quite generic article reporting the incident.

I also noticed on Sunday a lovely tongue-in-cheek discussion of archaeologists’ feelings for bunnies over at the Bad Science Forums.

Fenland Council Policy and Strategy and the wider planning strategy

Future Fenland Policy

One early reader of this blog has noted that the Fenland Council itself has very clear guidelines regarding archaeology and monuments in its Core Strategy and Development Policies Preferred Options 2 document. This document appears to be a draft Local Development Framework (LDF) for replacing the 1993 and 2001 strategies currently in use, and was produced in September 2007. From what I can make of the labyrinthine Fenland Council website, it is in consultation at the moment (July-August 2011) and will be redrafted for re-consultation in January/February 2012.

This states:

Policies and Plan will indicate that:

  • development proposals at all sites of known or potential archaeological interest will require the submission of an archaeological evaluation/assessment by a suitably qualified person.
  • development will not be permitted where proposals would adversely affect nationally important archaeological sites, including Scheduled Ancient Monuments
  • where development is granted at sites of archaeological interest, the insitu preservation of remains is preferred.  Where this is not justified or feasible, provision should be made for a programme of excavation, recording and reporting of remains to take place before development starts.”

Current Fenland Policy

Perhaps more pertinently, the Fenland Council website states that the Neighbourhood Planning – Local Development Scheme (Third Revision March 2011), which is “the only Development Plan Document that we will produce for the foreseeable future as part of an innovative new approach to planning policy that will help deliver the Council’s vision for growth within Fenland” is current practice. It states that the ‘E6′ and ‘E7′ policies from the 1993 plan “forms the basis for planning decisions in Fenland.” If we chase this we can see that the 1993 plan description of the E6 and E7 policies are copies of PPG 16 – i.e. require all the standard archaeological protection and mitigation measures.

Thus an examination of Fenland Council’s current planning policy indicates that Cllr Melton’s comments are entirely out of sync with both the current planning policy and strategy, and the proposed new core strategies. So far there has been no statement from Fenland Council regarding this conflict, nor from Cambridgeshire County Council, though both are expected (as of 13:15 24rd June).

Government policy angles – a removal of restrictions?

Ben Jervis brought the following to my attention (thank you!). There is currently a ‘National Planning Policy Framework practitioners advisory group‘ which might more accurately be described as four men (3/4 of whom are Conservatives) sitting in an office and agreeing to to scrap any clear planning guidance in order to allow economic growth. As has been discussed by others, having a planning system that gives legal priority to economic growth over all other aspects isn’t the ‘localist’ agenda the Conservatives are triumphing, it’s just a return to traditional Conservative ideas of letting corporate interests do what they want whether that’s actually any good for society or not.

These four have put together an extremely brief document, which is either out for consultation already or will be so ‘in the summer’. It looks like it might be the basis for the entire UK planning Strategy, and it’s been drawn up in only six months by an extremely limited number of people with dominant Conservative politics. If this goes ahead (a final version is due January 2012) then Fenland Council’s moves will be just the first of many – you can throw out any hope of the construction industry being tempered by environmental, cultural or heritage concerns (beyond the basic – don’t build on top of Stonehenge type assessments), and look forwards to uncontrolled development across the country in the name of ‘economic development’ – a development which it seems likely will generate increased profits for developers with no requirement for tangible social benefits for the rest of us.

Unfortunately this NPPF document is an inherent part of the government’s “Plan for Growth” statement (an attempt to Policy write our way out of recession), which contains statements such as (page 23) “introduce a powerful new presumption in favour of sustainable development, so that the default answer to development is ‘yes’” and “set clear expectations that with immediate effect local planning authorities and other bodies should prioritise growth and jobs“. This very clearly indicates that the NPPF is an inherent part of the governments plans to tackle economic difficulties, and one has to wonder whether Cllr Melton got the nod to test-run this scrapping of archaeological protection from further up the Conservative food-chain as a step towards introducing the NPPF in 2012.

The future?

Exactly where this is all taking us is unclear. If one local Council feels it can scrap archaeological and conservation process, including the archaeological ‘guidance’ issued by the UK government, then other councils may follow suit. But Cllr Melton is in for a rude awakening if he thinks he can just brush us aside. You cannot simply decide that archaeology is too expensive (and for whom – the developers?) to protect.

The first solid case where archaeology is clearly under threat from a development and the Council has failed to ask for suitable investigation or mitigation is likely to be jumped on. If Cllr Melton thinks that he is going to be cutting costs for developers and the Council this way, he is in for a surprise. Where PPS5 is ignored there will be complaints at local government level, appeals, official complaints at national level and potentially a move to take it to Judicial Review. Even putting aside UK law and guidance, Fenland Council’s moves could be resisted through appeal to EU laws. With the development held up and the Council forced to defend its decision every step of the way, this unlikely to be a cost-cutting move.

I doubt any other Council will follow Cllr Melton’s moves, no matter what words of ‘support’ he has received up to this point. They will be waiting to see what happens, and how the heritage sector responds. If we don’t, and Fenland Council’s decision is echoed across the UK, the shape of the archaeology profession in the UK is likely to be radically altered as other councils copy Fenland’s approach.

However, challenges will only work if the NPPF document (discussed above) does not go through – we have to read and respond to this via our associations and MPs as soon as it goes to consultation. If the document goes through you can basically say goodbye to the protections that have allowed the UK to establish itself as a world-leader in heritage protection, with all the tourist buisness that attracts. Every year development results in archaeological excavations that enable us to understand more and more about our country, our origins, the people we came from, our identity as a nation.You can say goodbye to that, and to the thousands of archaeological practitioners who represent some of the best trained and most experienced in the world.

We stand to loose countless uninvestigated, unacknowledged, unrecorded archaeological sites and we will have no way of knowing what we lost. We will return to the bad old days of the 1960s, where local county archaeologists had to drive around the county peering over fences and into trenches in the hope of recording archaeology before it was destroyed by developers. Where only the biggest and boldest of archaeological sites were recognised and hastily recorded in the few weeks gracefully given by developers before the whole lot was bulldozed. Frankly, that’s not a glorious past I wish to return to.

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9 comments on “Fenland Council plan to scrap all pre-development archaeological assessment – roundup

    • Love it, and definitely agree. If I hadn’t have dropped my CBA membership due to lack of funds, I might consider being outraged! :)

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