|ISSN 1357-4442||Editor: Simon Denison|
Collapse of public-interest archaeology
The Government and English Heritage seem unconcerned, writes Richard Morris
Bloodied, and clutching its wounds, local government archaeology stumbles from one savaging by its enemies (advocates of the join the real world, Guv school of politics) to another.
A brief recap of this sad tale: in 1990, a new system was introduced for developer-led archaeology, in which developers were required to take account of archaeology on their sites (and sometimes to pay for it to be excavated and recorded). They, and the contracting archaeologists working for them, would be regulated and guided by archaeologists working for local government.
This system was introduced as a result of the government policy document PPG16, which was designed to balance conservation and economic development. That remains a good aim. But to be effective, it requires a sound basis of knowledge (such as, for example, a properly maintained local Sites and Monuments Record). Moreover, as the balancing act is performed, a great deal of archaeology is done; and to have any purpose, it needs to be done within an agreed local research framework. If there is no research, why do the archaeology?
It begins to be clear that there is, or should be, a great deal more to local government archaeology than merely saying yes or no to planning applications. A properly run local service would work with local archaeological societies, benefitting from their enthusiasm, expertise, and local knowledge, and at the same time encouraging a local interest in archaeology. It would also make sure that the results of any archaeology were communicated to the community at large, who in any case ultimately pay for it in one way or another.
All of this presupposes a healthy local government service and that is not what we have got. Instead, we have a system in which integrated mechanisms have been eroded and broken up. With PPG16, local authority archaeologists were first separated into regulators and field units. The units, who knew their area well, were forced to compete for work with contracting units from elsewhere, who frequently have little grasp on an areas history. In addition, some field units have now been externalised from the local authority a process that is still going on in places.
On top of this fragmentation came local government reorganisation, which, with the ever-present county-hall budget squeeze, disaggregated local government services still further. One of the saddest examples has been in Bedfordshire, which once operated an integrated service that others could aspire to (see BA, November 1996), but whose archaeological services suffered a 40 per cent cut last year, with further deep cuts now proposed. The effect could be the destruction of two decades investment in local systems and databases.
Everywhere, local government archaeologists are under intense pressure, nose-down to development control work and often unable to give each application the attention it requires. Community involvement is falling by the wayside. Many contracting units, meanwhile, have cashflow problems, and in their desire to remain in work pare the research content of their tenders to the bone.
The Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers, and English Heritage, have now produced a survey of the state of surviving archaeological provision in English councils. It concentrates on staffing numbers and says nothing about how well arrangements work or how they contribute to wider objectives. Blandly, it notes that there have been some numerical losses, and some gains. It misses the main issue the issue of quality.
Leaning heavily on this report, however, the Department of Culture (advised by English Heritage) is now reacting to appeals on behalf of local government archaeology in terms of Crisis what crisis? . They imagine that because there are still people called archaeologists working in local government, all must be well. This is symptomatic of a failure to take a wider view of the importance of conducting archaeology with a purpose, and of bringing archaeology to the community.
Everyone agrees, or claims to agree, on the desirable benefits of well-run local government archaeology. What the Government and its advisers fail to understand is that we need a mechanism to deliver these benefits. We used to have such a mechanism in Bedfordshire and elsewhere, but now all is being lost. The Government fails to recognise that integrated services, the most efficient of all mechanisms, are very difficult to reinstate once lost. Such official unconcern betrays a lack of maturity, not only in conservation theory but also in political and management realities.
As community-related services crumble it will become increasingly difficult for development-led archaeology to demonstrate any useful purpose other than to facilitate development. Consequently there is a real danger that it will come to be seen as a waste of time and money, an expensive interest for an elite minority. This will be a weak defence against calls to reduce the level of archaeological constraint upon development when the planning system is next reviewed.
Richard Morris is the Director of the CBA
Return to the British Archaeology homepage
Return to the CBA homepage
© Council for British Archaeology, 1998