14 February 2014

What future for local government archaeological services?

Another week, another consultation! Today is the last day of a consultation on the future of local government archaeological services in England, part of a review of such services being undertaken by Lord Redesdale and John Howell MP on behalf of the UK Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries (Ed Vaisey MP).

Photograph copyright Paul Belford.

Although the photograph above was taken in Wales, at the offices of the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust, it represents a fairly typical example of the sorts of things that local government archaeological services undertake across the UK.

On the left we have the Historic Environment Record Officer for the Clwyd-Powys region (Jeff Spencer). His role includes (but is not limited to): maintaining the Historic Environment Record (HER - a database of all archaeological sites and events in the region); assisting colleagues with planning enquiries from developers; co-ordinating with other HER Officers (both in Wales and elsewhere in the UK) in developing and managing datasets, records and public access; dealing with random enquiries from members of the public; delivering outreach and education; contributing to research projects; making site visits and assessing the significance of archaeological remains; and acting on behalf of the Portable Antiquities Scheme working with metal-detectorists and others with chance finds. In this photograph he is simultaneously doing two of these things by using an assemblage brought in by a local metal-detectorist as a mechanism for training an undergraduate placement.

The review - and associated consultation - is of course about England, where local government archaeological services have been somewhat under pressure in recent years. Although archaeology was made part of the planning process over 20 years ago, successive governments have failed to make the maintenance of HERs a statutory requirement of local authorities. Generally 'heritage' has been placed with 'arts and culture' in local authority structures; and so when real cuts in spending have to be made, such services can be very vulnerable. This has always been the case, regardless of the colour of political administrations nationally or locally.

The review considers the following themes:
  1. Improving the sustainability of development control (planning) and record-keeping (HER) services.
  2. The role of third-sector organisations in potentially delivering such services in the future.
  3. The role of the future 'new model English Heritage' (about which I posted a few days ago) in co-ordinating and delivering such services, and the rigorousness or otherwise of sector-produced guidance.
Under these themes it asks a number of questions about the relevance, professionalism and sustainability of local government archaeological services in England, and asks consultees to provide examples of successes and failures from around the UK and indeed elsewhere.

My own recent experience suggests that the Welsh model may provide a way forward here.

In Wales, archaeological curatorial, planning and development control functions are maintained on behalf of local authorities (including the three National Parks) by the four Welsh Archaeological Trusts. This system ensures a consistent approach to planning and development control within each of the four Welsh regions and across Wales as a whole. The four Trusts maintain close formal and informal links with each other and with agencies of Welsh government (such as Cadw and NRW), and co-operate closely to maintain HER Wales and the public online access system, Archwilio. Funding for the Welsh curatorial services comes in part from Welsh Government (via grant aid from Cadw and the Royal Commission for the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales) and partly from local authorities.

By effectively pooling local resources regionally, local authorities in Wales have access to a much higher level of expertise and experience than they could provide individually - as a result the Welsh Archaeological Trusts provide significantly higher value for the public funds invested in them individual local authorities might be able to do.

In short, the Welsh system has much to recommend it. A regional system, with support from central government (aka 'new model English Heritage'), could be a possible template for the future for local government archaeological services in England.

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