By Jo Caruth
Rescue, The British Archaeological Trust

With local governments having to make swingeing cuts across the board, affecting social care, children’s services and other core functions, it can be hard to see why anyone except archaeologists should worry about cuts to local government archaeology services. However anyone with an interest in our history should be concerned about the long-term impact of these cuts.

The role of local government archaeologists is to protect our heritage, primarily by giving advice to the local planning authorities about the potential impact of proposed developments and by the maintenance of the Historic Environment Record (HER, a county-based list of all known archaeological sites). Most local authorities provide these services using professional archaeologists with considerable expertise and their work complements that of the Conservation Officer who works to protect the above ground heritage. As part of the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) local authorities are required to take account of the impact on the historic environment (95% of which is not protected by Scheduled Ancient Monument status) when considering a planning application.

Most local authority archaeological services employ fewer than four staff to maintain the HER and provide planning advice. Savings made by cutting these functions are therefore small, but across the country the picture shows that cuts are being made, with some councils removing their archaeological provision altogether (e.g. Sandwell in the West Midlands and Merseyside) and others losing posts. In August 2011 English Heritage reported that numbers of Conservation Officers were down by 13.9% and Archaeological Officers by 8.9%, and it is likely that this is just the tip of the iceberg as cuts continue to bite and local authority budgets are reduced.

So while the savings are tiny the potential impact on both known and unknown sites is huge. The vast majority of new archaeological discoveries made each year are made in the course of work in advance of development. The spectacular Anglo-Saxon princely burial at Prittlewell and the large Iron Age and Roman site recently discovered in Peterborough were only found because of archaeological conditions put on development, without which these sites would have been damaged or never recorded at all.

Wessex Archaeology staff excavating at the site of the former Dorchester County Hospital © Wessex Archaeology

Even Scheduled Monuments and Listed Buildings could be at risk because whilst they will still be protected in law, loss of Conservation and Archaeological Officers and cuts to English Heritage will inevitably lead to a reduction in the capacity to enforce protection. We cannot believe that development pressure on archaeological sites will stop simply because there was no longer the means to enforce it.

But it is not just our archaeological heritage at risk, development itself is dependent on the knowledge and guidance of these Officers. Currently archaeological work is planned in advance allowing developers to build time and costs into their schedule. A poor assessment of the archaeological potential by overworked or underskilled staff could easily lead to inappropriate work being demanded of developers or the untimely discovery of important remains that could have been predicted, leading to delays and thus impacting on schedules and costs, and ultimately on much needed economic growth. The present system was put in place to prevent such problems. Dismantling it piece by piece will simply mean that these problems will return to damage both archaeology and the development process.

For twenty years archaeologists have been developing the county HERs – a unique resource providing mapping and descriptive information about sites, accessible to everyone and driving masses of private and public research. Just as progress is being made to integrate these into nationally compatible systems available on the internet, the plug could be pulled. There is still hope that this role, at least will become statutory and the new NPPF did seem to emphasize the importance of this information, but at the moment local councils still have discretion to remove it. We cannot afford to take the view that if we allow this to happen, we can rebuild it some time in the future.

Evidence shows that as local authority archaeologists are lost to the service they are unlikely to return to such an insecure and notoriously underpaid profession. This will lead to short and long term skills shortages, which when seen in conjunction with other cuts in the public sector such as cuts to specialist museum and archive staff and cuts to university courses, will have long-term effects from which it may be very difficult to recover.

All of this will inevitably impact on our understanding of the development of our local historic environment, and how it interleaves with the development of Britain as a whole as well as damaging one of our most vulnerable non-renewable resources. In addition to the intrinsic value of our Heritage Assets, estimates from the Heritage Lottery Fund suggest that heritage tourism makes a contribution worth almost £21 billion to the UK’s gross domestic product. At a time of economic standstill can we afford to take these risks with our heritage?

You can do something, visit the Rescue website and see our guide to Fighting Back, and help save the services you care about.

Further Reading
Why local government needs archaeological advisors: A TAF statement

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