Archaeology in the United Kingdom: a view from the council for British Archaeology

Richard Morris (Director CBA)

For thirty years there has been sustained effort to embed archaeological expertise in Britain’s local government. Local planning authorities regulate development, and the presence of archaeological advice within the planning process is obviously valuable, as is the ability to build archaeological considerations into development plans. Many local authorities are also responsible for museums, and a number are education authorities. A strong archaeological presence thus makes it possible to connect functions of stewardship, study, and public explanation. A tool which serves all three is the Sites and Monuments Record (SMR): an historic environmental database which should be available to provide accurate, apposite and timely information, and around which other functions can revolve.

Local provision has developed variously since 1970. In England, its main initial flowering was at county level, which enabled the grouping of skills and expertise which would often be unsustainable in smaller areas. In some counties, like Bedfordshire and Hampshire, integrated teams evolved which embraced development control, public outreach and education, and fieldwork, on the principle that these things should be mutually informing and reinforcing. In other areas provision was smaller, sometimes never advancing beyond development control. The location of archaeology within local government has been similarly diverse. Most often it grew up within the planning department, but some authorities made a point of establishing it in relation to their museums or education service.

Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland followed different and in some respects diverging paths. Wales obtained, and still retains, a system which was intended for England in the early 1970s but never introduced, involving regional trusts which exist outside local government but provide services to the planning system and the public. Scotland went down the local government route, although coverage was more slowly achieved than in England. In Northern Ireland there are no local authorities, and conservation functions are handled centrally by the Government itself.

Everywhere, SMRs developed unevenly, with different systems and standards, and varying provision for updating. A long battle, indeed, has been to explain to others why such databases need to be living organisms which evolve as knowledge and valuations change.

These limitations notwithstanding, by 1990 SMR coverage in England was complete, enabling the Government to introduce guidance which insists that archaeological considerations should be taken into account when planning decisions are taken.

Progress since then has mingled triumph with tragedy. On the planning side, the principles launched in 1990 have taken firm root, and have since been extended (with variations) to all parts of the UK. A corollary of this system, however, has been the separation of functions of stewardship, study, and explanation which formerly went together. The system is overseen by local government archaeologists who are regarded as curators, while development-driven fieldwork is undertaken by contracting bodies. Curators are not always resourced to knit together the results of contracting work or planning decisions for the information of local people, while contractors do not always find themselves working for clients who see outreach as part of their responsibility.

Since the mid 1990s such problems have been exacerbated by the effects of local government reorganisation. Again, the effects have not been uniform.

In England, some existing teams have been broken up, with loss of continuity and at the expense of critical mass and the accumulating asset of local knowledge.

The detachment of new unitary authorities has left other services weakened, while provision within the authorities themselves is variable. Joint arrangements, where services are shared between a number of authorities, can be weakened when one or two authorities decide to secede.

A recent survey of English SMRs revealed an overall picture of structural under-resourcing and backlog, which itself exists against a background of potentialities in digital information technology that is advancing so swiftly as to threaten to outpace the ability of archaeological bodies to take progressive and coherent advantage of it.

Superimposed upon all this have been rising expectations of local government archaeology services, and the influence of the Blair Government. Essentially, the services are being asked to do more with less, while the Government’s priorities of access, education, regeneration and devolution have yet to reflect much visible sense of enthusiasm for the historic environment at large. Steps towards regionalization in England add further uncertainties.

It is the stronger services which are most vulnerable – in the rest, there is little left to cut. Each year one or two of the remaining broader-based services are put in jeopardy. Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire suffered in 1997 and 1998. This year services were threatened in Northamptonshire, Worcestershire, Somerset, and elsewhere.

This has become a recognisable cycle. It is hard to resist because in a given year the problem affects only a proportion of services, and so can hardly be portrayed as a national crisis. But the cumulative effect is to chip away at the models to which others could once aspire, and to drive down expectations of what provision should involve.

What should provision involve? In a sentence, it should combine capacity for explanation and education as well as regulation. Public explanation is inherently worthwhile, and if conservation leaves popular understanding behind, other problems will follow. Moreover, many threats to the historic environment don’t fall under the planning system at all. The effects of agriculture, for instance, require local advocacy and advice on a scale which many authorities are simply unable to provide.

Beyond this, there is large opportunity for public participation in local interpretation and stewardship which in most areas is not being grasped for want of nucleal resourcing. It is said by some that this is best provided by local societies and amateurs, acting spontaneously, and in some areas it is. But this is not an either/or issue. My own view is that independency is likely to flourish best where it can draw on practical support and encouragement, the two achieving more together than either could alone.

Since 1997 the CBA has become increasingly practised in pointing all this out. Government reaction was initially politely dismissive, seeking to portray the issue narrowly as a quibble about capacity for development control.

This year, I confess I am a trifle exasperated by the Government’s track record of talking past the point, we have tried to put the case more unequivocally. We have done so in letters to and meetings with ministers, in dialogue with the local authorities concerned, via Parliamentary questions, contacts to MPs and peers, the media, coverage in our magazine British Archaeology, and most recently through encouragement for an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons.

This will continue until agreement is reached on what we are all talking about – or should be talking about. At that point we will see progress. No-one at the CBA assumes that a Government rethink will lead to overnight change, but it would change the climate in which priorities are shaped. That can only be achieved when there is agreement on the diagnosis of the issues. There are signs that this is now being thought about, and that some of the bigger beasts in the heritage jungle (like English Heritage) will soon be taking up the cause in a more visibly proactive way. Meanwhile, the campaign goes on.