British archaeology on the ropes?

An important article from Nature highlights the threats to British archaeology from the results of the recession.

Archaeology is being hit by a three-way whammy: the economic recession is causing a collapsed in commercial archaeology, the withdrawal of state funding from a wide range of areas as part of the CONDEM cuts agenda, and a threat to universities due to the changes in direct government funding for Higher Education and a reduction of funding available via the Research Councils; Dr Mike Heyworth, Director of the Council for British Archaeology has characterised this as a ‘perfect storm’.

There are a lot of issues worth exploring here, particularly the wider impact of changes to Higher Education (I’ll try and talk about these later). However, I think most significant threat is from the underlying rhetoric about the state withdrawing from funding services, with Cameron’s nebulous notion of the ‘Big Society’ (aka ‘the tooth fairy’) co-ordinating itself to replace, through voluntary service, the state-shaped hole in provision of support for the historic environment.

I am profoundly uneasy about this recourse to the ‘Big Society’ to cure all ills.

First of all, whilst the belief in the unending stream of volunteers is very touching, one has to question where all these individuals are going to come from. If we are all being asked to give up time to support core services (education; health; welfare etc) there will be a greater pressure on the limited corps of ‘willing enthusiasts’. Anybody who already has something to do with local community groups or societies already knows that there is not an endless source of volunteers. There are undoubtedly many keen and enthusiastic members of the community who engage in a wide range of dedicated and committed ways with archaeology and heritage. However, their numbers and time are limited. There is an even greater shortage of people who are willing and able to take up the organising and administrative roles. It is these often boring and unexciting admin jobs (chairman; secretary; treasurer) that keep local volunteer groups going. It is ironic that one of the first things to be axed by EH is their outreach team.

Secondly, again, whilst there is a huge amount of experience, knowledge and specialist skills out there in the amateur community, there is always going to be a need for them to be supported by professional specialists. For example, whilst many local societies have keen field walkers, excavators and documentary researchers, they may lack access to conservation skills (and equipment), geophysical kit (and experience) etc etc; there are also many ‘soft’ skills which aren’t widely available in the amateur sector (e.g. understanding the manifold delights of writing MORPHE compliant project designers, detailed knowledge of planning law). For a vibrant amateur community to work, it has to work in partnership with an enthusiastic professional sector. However, the three main arms of professional archaeology (Local Government; Academic; Commercial) face real challenges – particularly Local Government, where much of the co-ordination and involvement with local groups occurs. As looks likely, if the function of Local Government Archaeology is being reduced right down to simply providing planning advice, the first thing to go in terms of service provision will be precisely the time/resources to facilitate this kind of much-needed partnership working with local groups.

I agree with Mike Heyworth that its great that the HER network has been expanded over the last 10 years, but these are living databases, they need to be updated constantly (many HERs already have significant backlogs) and time is needed to deal with enquiries. Currently, these incredibly important research resources are open to the public and researchers (of all levels) and are not simply treated as planning tools. However, how long will this stay the case when Local Government administrators pressure County Archaeologists to maximise income and limit unnecessary work? Even the increasing move to on-line HERs is not the answer- huge amounts of data is held in parish files/’grey literature’ – and they still require curation and updating.

It is encouraging that funding for the Heritage Lottery Fund will increase in future years; however, given the ‘cuts’ agenda, there is also likely to be a massive increase in applications – potentially to fund services that had previously been funded through core budgets. HLF funding also has limitations- it is primarily project based, it won’t pay for the year on year provision of basic services or facilities. It is great for initiating work, but not so good at keeping things going when times are tight.

There are many other challenges – I am broadly keen on the move towards localism, but how will Housing Minister Grant Shap’s proposals to get rid of planning law when it comes to local housing developments in rural villages affect archaeology, for example? What will be the implications of the proposals to privatise the Forestry Commission on our ancient woodland? What will be the impact of the huge cuts to DEFRA in conserving and maintaining historic landscapes? If we want to support a ‘local’ agenda, we need to ensure that those in administrative jobs have the detailed and intimate knowledge of local heritage to allow local needs to be effectively developed within an environment that takes on board the idiosyncratic nature of local landscapes and needs- however, it is precisely this kind of knowledge held by people who have spent year’s working in their local area that will disappear following the threatened staff cuts. Once that knowledge is gone, it is not easy to get back. Of course, some will continue to work in an amateur capacity out of their love for the subject, but it’s a harsh lesson to be told that you are expected to do for free, what you were once paid to do…

I would agree with Reuben that much of this cut agenda is ideologically driven; although I know that many would argue against that perspective. However, whether one sees this slash and burn policy as a necessary evil or politically motivated carnage, what worries me profoundly is the sheer short-termism of the way it is being handled, with a lack of communication, lack of any visible succession planning or real sense of the long-term impact.

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1

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  1. Hi Ben, it's the biggest archaeological employer nowawaday; the sector expanded massively in the 1990s following the introduction of PPG16. As in practice, it is essentially a sub-contracting element of the development industry, like other related trades, it tends to be first into recession and last out. There have been serious job cuts over the last 18 months


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