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The Changing Face of British Archaeology & the Historic Environment

“An Open Letter”

I recently received a “round robin” email for a new survey being undertaken by Landward Research Ltd on behalf of Historic England. The survey is being conducted in order to assess the current state of “Historic Enviroment Specalists” working in the United Kingdom. It supposes that there will be an increase in historic envorioment needs through forthcoming large-scale development and that this should be weighed against a growing shortage in skills.

As a full time archaeologist and experienced heritage professional working within the commercial sector of development led archaeology, combined with a keen interest in both the progression of my profession and govermant policy related to it, I am fully aware and EXTREMELY concerned about the changing face of heritage protection and conservation within the United Kingdom.

The sector is already beginning the experience the effects of such change, however, I believe that unless our community is more proactive and coherent these effects will continue to grow beyond our control or influence.

So upon my first inspection of this email, my initial reaction was one of enthusiasm and that there are others within our community that are being proactive to address some key issues. However, having fully read the email and subsequent questionnaire, I feel that the wrong questions are being asked.

It is true that development in the Untied Kingdom, in theory at least is expected to grow rapidly over the next few years under the current government. Both large-scale infrastructure and housing projects will inevitably have a dramatic impact upon the historic environment. Further, as is suggested there is a growing skills gap within heritage, with those experienced heritage professionals either approaching retirement or have left the profession all together.

My issue with the survey is that there appears to be the assumption that this increase in construction will lead to a greater demand on and more opportunities for the heritage sector and combined with a growing shortage of heritage professionals/specialists will result in our profession facing some tough challenges to meet these growing demands.

My understanding and experience is that our profession is facing growing restrictions rather than growing demands. We have already seen the contraction of heritage professionals within the public sector in recent years. Funding for county archaeologists have and are continuing to be cut, some areas are now experiencing so called "black holes" is heritage, HER's face closure, regional museums are being closed and of particular worry is the potential privatization of curatorial planning advice, already observed in some areas. This last point also highlights a question of the interdependency of heritage advice.

Then there is the issue of the Neighborhood Planning Bill, which will reach its second reading in the House of Lords on the 17th January. I wonder how many working heritage professionals are aware of this fact and the potential impact the information contained within it could have on the heritage profession. If the Bill is as radical as most sources predict then there could be a major cut to pre-commencement conditions, which would inevitably effect heritage protection and potentially jobs. Further, there is a concern that there will be a widening of "permitted development", which will allow for construction without heritage issues being fully taken into consideration.

Then there are the builders, developers and construction professionals. An online study of news related to planning, construction and archaeology over the past few months will highlight dozens of articles written for the most part by the construction industry welcoming government plans to speed up the process of building, the reduction in red tape and the cutting of pre-commencement conditions, and the main argument used is the need to provide more housing and infrastructure to meet our growing populations needs, which is an extremely strong and emotive argument to you average member of the public. And this is all fine except where are the counter articles relating to heritage protection? A quick online search of archaeology and heritage will provide many articles about new discoveries and finds that have been made, all of which is wonderful stuff, but there is very little related to these growing issues highlighted above.

Where are our main representatives in all of this? What has CIFA or CBA or RESCUE or ALGAO or Historic England done to highlight these concerns to the wider heritage community? Yes these organizations have raised their concerns to government but is that enough? Or are these organizations beholden to outside interests.

What role does NPPF have to play in all of this? Indeed it has always sort to place heritage into a monetary framework. The use of the word "heritage ASSET" seems to imply that we base heritage on its monetary value alone. However, this then leads to a much larger and more important debate, and one that really should be being talked about:

"Where are we as a profession, where have we come from since 1991 and where do we see ourselves in 20 years"

In order to answer this fundamental question we as community of heritage professionals must look closely at some key factors. Why is there still a disconnect between different factions of archaeology and heritage? Why is archaeology still very much divided into commercial, research and public forms? And why do these not communicate better? Why have we seen more specialists in commercial archaeology sidelined from employment within a company structure? Has commercial archaeology gone too far down a path that places heritage protection into a monetary framework? Should heritage protection and conservation be "sold" on a different set of values, such as along social, cultural and environmental lines?

I believe that these are the issues that need to be focused on and that once these have been addressed then and only then can we be more coherent as a community of heritage professionals in tackling such momentous concerns that we are now seeing arising.

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