Image of St Pancras Station, with associated computer mapping
Image of St Pancras Station, with associated computer mapping
Image of St Pancras Station, with associated computer mapping

Covid-19 Restrictions and Impacts on Commercial Archaeology

By Rob Lennox, Senior Advocacy Coordinator at Chartered Institute for Archaeologists

In a short space of time, Covid-19 has developed from a far-off concern with little relevance to archaeology in the UK, to an issue having unprecedented short-term impacts on the ability of archaeological businesses to operate. It will re-shape commercial archaeology practices in the medium- to long-term future.

Commercial archaeology employs around 5,000 people in the UK and is worth £239 million per annum. It draws the majority of this funding from developers in return for providing services to support sustainable development in compliance with the planning system.

Commercial archaeology is closely aligned with the construction sector. For this sector, the safety and effectiveness of procedures for working on construction sites during the initial phases of the Covid-19 crisis has been a major concern.

Safety concerns in construction were prompted before lockdown began in March. But it was the announcement of lockdown that spurred many archaeological companies to call a halt to site work. Construction was impacted by similar decisions up and down the supply chain, with many projects paused or cancelled.

Taking advantage of government emergency support mechanisms has allowed archaeological companies to mitigate much of the immediate financial impact of this disruption.

While the UK Government never encouraged construction sites to close, many archaeological companies used the period of disruption to pull workers from site and furlough where needed. They used the time to put in place new safety measures to make social distancing on site possible.

These new working practices have been influenced by excellent work done by trade union Prospect [Updated July 2021] to ensure that safety could be assured for workers and the public.

By mid-May most archaeological companies were back working on site, and work is – on the whole – building back up.

While this initial shock set many heads spinning, the sector has mostly recovered its composure. It has set about cataloguing the potential damage that the short, medium and long term may hold for commercial archaeologists.

In the short term, employers continue to keep a weather eye on safety and develop training resources that conform to emerging government advice. They will also monitor fluctuations in demand and consequent impacts, such as the need to keep staff furloughed in parts of the business, with increased skills demand in others.

We know that the virus is not going away quickly, so in the medium term, social distancing will continue to have an impact on speed and efficiency. Businesses will be especially stretched as the wider construction industry tries to soak up potentially more costly practices. For example, having fewer people on site at once, individual travel to work and more expenditure on cleaning. This will be particularly challenging if confidence in the housing market falters if, as expected, we dip into recession.

The signs are that the sector has continued to be involved throughout lockdown with pre-planning work in advance of future development. This has built a backlog of site work that could explode when lockdown eases further, if developers choose to proceed with permissions. But whether this rush materialises remains to be seen, and depends heavily on market conditions.

Emergency measures such as furlough will not last forever. When they are eased back, companies may face pressures to make staff redundant if they cannot support the same level of work as before. Beyond this are concerns about the unequal effect of Covid-19 on staff members especially vulnerable to the virus who may not be able to return to work for some time.

In the longer term, the fact that Covid-19 is also a harbinger of economic uncertainty and recession is a major concern. The construction sector has only recently recovered to pre-2008 levels following the financial crisis, which saw work dry up and profit margins squeezed.

So, archaeological companies will not be looking forward to another period of contraction, reversing the recent rapid growth since 2016. If Covid-19 causes housebuilders to slow build rates, archaeology will suffer along with the rest of the construction supply chain.

If this happens, it will not only be archaeological jobs at risk, but also archaeological resource. If an archaeological organisation goes into administration or becomes insolvent, materials held by that company are all at risk. This includes: site records (notes, drawing, photographs), reports and analysis of sites and artefacts, and archives of artefacts and samples.

In principle, these records and archives are only held long enough for analysis to be completed, before being transferred elsewhere (to a museum for example) for long term storage. In practice, however, archaeological companies often hold large quantities of archive material from many years of work.

Comprehending and preparing to tackle these longer-term impacts of Covid-19 will be a key challenge for the archaeological sector for years to come.

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