Gateway to Rome
Political commentary: Reaching out to the world
Is your historic environment in Little England? George Lambrick hopes not.
Given its emphasis on the need to do more to recognise the multi-cultural origins of modern society, the recent Power of Place report (see update) is remarkably silent on issues of uk and international relations.
At the launch of the report, the DCMS minister Alan Howarth referred to the 'well of patriotism' that the historic environment provides - reflecting an underlying trend towards more nationalistic approaches to the historic environment resulting from devolution. When politicians start talking about the historic environment in nationalistic tones we should beware it does not become a political football.
Actually, since long before devolution the differences of legislation and approach between the different parts of the uk have been a valuable source of different experience and ideas. One example that may well become very relevant in the next year or two is how we control archaeological excavations. In an unpublicised move last September, the UK quietly signed up to the 1992 European Valetta Convention (see update), which establishes basic principles of how archaeological sites and artefacts should be cared for including the licensing of excavators and excavations. Most of UK practice already complies with Valetta, but Irish colleagues are amazed that there is no comprehensive system of licensing this side of the Irish Sea. Work carried out under scheduled monument consent or PPG16 and its equivalents are a form of licensing, but this leaves much good work - often by amateurs and academics - not subject to control.
There seems little appetite in Government for imposing extra controls, but if any are required they will need to be supportive and non-bureaucratic. The integrated planning advice and licensing system already run in Northern Ireland could provide useful lessons for the rest of the UK.
Valetta is only one relevant international charter. The panel set up by DCMS last autumn to look at Britain's international and domestic legal arrangements in relation to trade in portable antiquities also reported just before Christmas (see update). Amongst its refreshingly clear and specific recommendations, it calls on the Government to sign the UNESCO Convention on trade in antiquities and strengthen other controls. Another important suggestion is that Britain should provide international aid to support education and advice about conservation of sites overseas, thereby helping to discourage looting.
Two years ago I visited Pakistan and was struck by the contrast between the excellent legislative provision for conservation and the severe problems of its practical application. We hear about the problems of World Heritage sites (most recently the wonderful Shalimar Gardens of the Mogul emperors at Lahore) but very little of the thousands of other major sites that are suffering from neglect and looting. It is the same with almost any developing country.
The British Government has been very resistant to the idea of cultural aid, but archaeology and conservation are excellent means of directly supporting local communities in providing basic educational skills and local employment in traditional crafts and manual work. Instead UK aid seems to be more geared to supporting British business involvement in ethically dubious infrastructure schemes, such as the Euphrates dam projects in Turkey, which often have significant social, environmental and archaeological impacts.
A different international relations issue arises from the proposal in the new Culture and Recreation Bill to extend English Heritage's trading remit to working abroad (see update). EH should certainly continue to liaise with colleagues in other countries, including more exchanges and secondments.
But setting up a trading enterprise is a tall order, and certainly a far cry from developing a more ethical policy towards overseas aid.EH overseas
There are many professional and academic organisations and individual consultants based in the UK who already offer the kind of services that EH would be marketing, so is it now the time to divert precious resources away from the many pressing domestic needs identified by the Power of Place report?
The implications of multi-culturalism for ethical international relations is another issue that is unaddressed in the Power of Place report. Britain's international policy towards the historic environment needs to become more coherent. This is not just about archaeological loss and destruction, but about the opportunity to provide support to peoples whose cultures contribute to our own society.
George Lambrick is Director of the CBA