Over the last few days, there has been a storm of social media activity surrounding the Government’s new Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill, and the perceived threat it poses to any ancient remains unlucky enough to lie in the path of a proposed development. Over 10,000 people have already signed a petition against it, and here’s how you can take action too.
At the moment, we have a planning system that empowers local authorities to get developers to assess the land they propose to build on for things like archaeology and wildlife, before giving them permission to build on it. However, the new Bill intends to change the way these ‘pre-commencement’ conditions are used, by suggesting they should only be imposed ‘when absolutely necessary’.
The Government says the reason for this is that these conditions contribute to the lack of house building in England. They cause delays, which hold up the planning process and put developers off, but we shouldn’t believe this rhetoric.
Yes, lots of sites that are ripe for development probably do hold important archaeology, which will take weeks or months to excavate properly. But we can’t just ignore it. Without this process we would never have discovered Wiltshire’s Bronze Age Amesbury Archer, or York’s Roman tiger-mauled gladiators, or Ebbsfleet’s ancient elephant, hunted and butchered over 400,000 years ago by pre-Neanderthals and which finally came to rest beneath the proposed site for HS1.
As it stands, over 90% of all planning applications eventually get accepted, usually after some pre-commencement conditions have been imposed. But it’s these conditions that ensure sustainable, balanced decisions are made.
Stripping away powers to impose pre-commencement conditions is actually more likely to slow house-building down
The proposals in the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill also suggest that the Government may have missed the true value of this process. In addition to the cultural value of archaeology, stripping away powers to impose pre-commencement conditions is actually more likely to slow house-building down. In the long run, the sooner you identify archaeology, the easier it is to manage.
Check for archaeology before you begin and you can deal with it either by moving the remains, or by adjusting designs for the building’s foundations. But let it turn up as a nasty surprise once you’ve already called in the builders and that’s when you’re really going to start wasting time and money (unless, of course, you pretend you never found it and dig straight on through).
The protections in place for archaeology and wildlife are not to blame for the lack of affordable housing being built in this country, and making it easier for developers to undermine them is not going to improve anything.
If the Government really wants to make a difference to the rate of house building in this country, then it’s issues like developer land-banking, the lack of capital to bring forward permissions, and the perverse incentive to restrict house building to keep prices high that also need to be considered.
On Saturday Planning Minister Brandon Lewis responded to individuals on social media to assure them that their assumptions on the nature of the changes and potential threat to archaeology were unfounded, but at this stage we still don’t know what precise form the changes will take.
The Council for British Archaeology and Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, along with other bodies in the sector, will be lobbying government over the coming months to extract further assurances and help shape the Bill as it emerges.
But it is also vital to keep up the extraordinary public pressure that we have seen over the last few days, as the Government has shown in the past few years that its priority for deregulation in the name of growth and productivity often has the potential to trample legitimate concerns for the environment.
So stand up, be counted. Write to your MP and tell them how much archaeology and the environment means to you, sign the petition and say no to any changes to the planning process that would weaken their protections, or get advice from the Local Heritage Engagement Network about what else you can do.
Dig with us at Lindisfarne in 2017
Join the search for the heart of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria