Editor Mike Pitts
Saving Rural Heritage
Responsibilities of all government bodies to the historic environment need to become statutory, says George Lambrick
Over the last 15 years developers have recognised their responsibility to minimise damage to the historic environment and to record what they destroy. It is one of the great successes of our times, with something like £65m per year going into developer-funded archaeology. This rip-roaring growth, however, has left other areas of archaeology totally overshadowed.
Archaeology has much to say about Britain from since farming began right up to recent times: around 80% of that story has no written record. The vast bulk of physical remains of the past is in the countryside, or 30-odd key historic towns. Some of it is threatened by development, but much more is under relentless pressure of intensive agriculture and natural processes. In urban areas 20% of sites are at medium or high risk of damage: compare that with 65% of sites in arable areas. Earthworks in cultivation, and wetland sites affected by peat shrinkage typically loose as much as 2-5 cm per year. Within the Avebury World Heritage Site 45% of all sites are threatened by ploughing, rising to 95% in some topographical zones.
How are we looking after this precious archive? Some progress is being made. By paying farmers a realistic rate for taking sensitive sites out of cultivation, the new special countryside stewardship scheme for Stonehenge and Avebury is getting good take-up. We can warmly welcome the financial agreement recently reached by English Heritage and the Gorhambury estate to save large parts of Verulamium Roman city. But this has taken detailed surveys and four years of negotiation: it is not a realistic way of dealing with the problem as a whole.
English Heritage spends only £0.25m on management agreements for scheduled monuments. Through agri-environment schemes DEFRA are spending about £13m on traditional boundaries and buildings and an unspecified amount on taking sites out of cultivation. But this is only in the 8% of farmland covered by current schemes, and within this only 2-7% of agreements are in areas where sites are at high risk of cultivation damage.
All this is tiny compared with expenditure on biodiversity. In England ten times fewer archaeologists than ecologists are employed to give advice to farmers. Numbering only two or three dozen, archaeologists are so thin on the ground that they make about 100 times fewer farm visits. The situation is similar in Scotland and, to a lesser extent, Wales.
Behind development-led archaeology is the ‘polluter pays’ principle. How might this apply elsewhere? Farmers are not developers – we have subsidised them to produce food with minimal regulation of their affect on the heritage. The responsibility is strategic (as is recognised in DEFRA’s statutory duty to balance food production with environmental safeguards). DEFRA is already committed to spend more on agri-environment schemes which include better historic environment provision. But advice is still seen as an administrative cost to such schemes, rather than the key to a culture of sustainable farming.
Local authorities play a crucial role. They represent the historic environment in planning, in agri-environment schemes, in management of their own assets and in outreach and research support, meshing with provision of museum services. They are not obliged to provide any of these. Every year around now we hear of threatened cuts to local services. The need for them has never been greater.
Responsibilities towards the historic environment of all national, regional and local government bodies need to become statutory. That is the lesson of development-led archaeology.
George Lambrick is Director of the CBA
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005