A photograph of seven members of the public looking at the excavation site of the Rose Theatre in London, behind a chain link fence.
The discovery of the 1587 Rose Theatre, London 1989, attracted huge public interest and concern about its fate © Christopher Hilton CC BY-SA 2.0 Creative Commons License
The discovery of the 1587 Rose Theatre, London 1989, attracted huge public interest and concern about its fate © Christopher Hilton CC BY-SA 2.0 Creative Commons License

How Long Can It Last?

By Peter Hinton, Chief Executive, Chartered Institute for Archaeologists

The system works: ‘all too short a date’

The Archaeology and Planning Case Studies project demonstrates how the planning process brings public benefit through archaeology. It depends on assessment of the impact of proposed development on the significance of heritage assets, allowing planning authorities to make informed and reasonable decisions on planning applications.

If permission is granted, conditions may require mitigation of impact by changing the development, or offsetting by archaeological research. Such approaches have delivered a huge amount of new knowledge about England’s past, engaging communities and sharing new understandings.

So far so good.

But how long can it last? How safe is archaeology in the planning process, the only basis in law for managing and studying the 95% of heritage assets not protected by listing, scheduling or other designations?

The vulnerabilities: ‘oft expectation fails’

There are two threats.

The first is budgetary pressure on local authorities, which are responsible for planning. In the last 10 years we have lost a third of the archaeological advisors to planning authorities: worse still, behind that headline figure lurk local authorities that have reduced numbers from some to none. If no-one advises the planners, decisions can be insecure and unsustainable, and there may be no conditions requiring excavation and sharing of findings with the public – a tragedy for research and communities, and a headache for developers.

The rate of loss may have lessened recently (speak softly), but already several local authorities face insolvency. Authorities are dissolving, merging and reorganising. Reduced funding and ever-increasing social care costs are top of the worry lists for councillors and officers; archaeology isn’t. Decisions will profoundly affect archaeology, but they won’t be decisions about archaeology.

The second vulnerability comes from changes to the planning system. Put simply, government wishes to deregulate through more and more ‘permitted development’, where planning permission is deemed to have been granted without an application going through the process that ensures the right archaeological response, or by the more radical changes proposed in the 'Planning for the Future' white paper of August 2020.

It seems inevitable that opportunities to give public value from archaeology will be lost and risks will be increased. Sites will be lost without study. Communities will be deprived of their history. Developers will have expensive surprises affecting programme and reputation. Local authorities will be blamed.

Déjà vu: ‘this strange eventful history’

Some will remember the public outcry in 1989 over the (officially) unexpected discovery of Shakespeare’s 1587 Rose Theatre in London. The tragi-comedy that played out on its stage 400 years later led to an acceptance by government that its archaeology policies were inadequate. The planning process was reformed to ensure that significant sites were identified in advance, protected or excavated, and results shared with the public.

So Act 1 ended with disaster causing a beneficial change in policy, establishing the system that is being eroded today by piecemeal ‘reforms’. The planning system has been streamlined into ever-greater complexity. Loopholes intended and otherwise have been created. Local authorities are being starved of resources to manage it all.

We’ve enjoyed the interval. Act 2 starts soon and might be very similar to Act 1.

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