Abby Antrobus' article in the last issue has prompted me to reflect on a number of matters archaeological. First I must point out that a good deal of what I have to say in this article is, if not irrelevant to Suffolk, at least not as immediately disturbing as it is elsewhere. Rather remarkably, given the draconian changes at Suffolk County Council, it has retained an Archaeological service, much reorganised, but recognisably ‘fit for purpose'.
I have long been struck by a paradox, which would be rather amusing if not deeply depressing. The public fascination with archaeology and (perhaps less so) history is unmatched by enthusiastic commitment from any of the various layers of government or, until very recently, by business leaders. This is odd given the income that is generated from the ‘Heritage' industry. I doubt there are many votes for any local politician who places historical matters high in a manifesto, but it should be made clear that income generated from visitors to heritage sites can significantly benefit the whole community.
When fiscal issues rear their ugly head, funding for archaeology tends to be seen as a soft target. Many County Council archaeological units, who oversaw or undertook archaeological work as part of the planning process, have been diminished or disbanded. Statutory planning obligations are ‘outsourced' to professionals in the private sector, often geographically considerably distant from the sites under consideration.
A feature of the present planning process is that a developer has the right to put the work of archaeological evaluation and the actual digging out to tender. If there is a County Council archaeological unit it has to compete with the private sector. A consequence of the closure of local authority units has been that a number of displaced professionals have joined commercial units or set up in independent practice. There is concern about the quality and consistency of some of these contractors. Our fear is that developers may be tempted to take the cheapest option or even one which may have a ‘lower threshold' for finding matters of interest at initial evaluation!
The local authority nevertheless remains responsible for the activities of these independent contractors. In particular to oversee professional competence and adherence to planning regulations. A comprehensive and updatable database of local sites is crucial and needs local expertise and knowledge to maintain it. A planning department lacking such expertise means it is possible that the quality of work will suffer.
Another issue which is vexatious is the contention that the high costs of archaeological evaluation and, especially, subsequent excavation are a disincentive to development especially in urban environments.
Is this really the reason for so many areas of the town that remain blighted by failed or delayed development? The question is often asked: why we are ‘denied' the opportunity to dig and learn more about the town's origins? It is true that a developer has to pay these expenses and they should of course be factored into the initial budget. In the absence of central, local government or charitable funding this is usually the only means of paying for investigation.
Of course, there are many other factors that lead to the problem, but if the situation is contributing to the failure to develop then perhaps a more equitable approach would be to surcharge all planning applications, whether archaeologically sensitive or not. This would spread the burden.
The national situation has become sufficiently alarming that the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) has established a Local Heritage Engagement Network (LHEN). Its role is to foster surveillance at a local and national level. This is a form of public advocacy, both reactive and active. The CBA offers a list of desiderata for local advocacy organisations.
• Action to protect local heritage, archaeology services from budget cuts.
• Campaigning for high quality historic environmental policies in local plans and strategies.
• Having access to good local knowledge.
• Protecting individual sites and places during development processes.
• Raising awareness of and creating good relationships with local decision-makers.
• Keeping the public informed about archaeological issues.
• To share experience with other groups and help and support campaigners and watchdogs.
I am pleased and indeed proud that the Ipswich Archaeological Trust, of which I have had the honour to be chairman since its founding in 1982, fulfils these criteria admirably. The trusteeship and committee has a very strong professional archaeological membership. Keith Wade, former Suffolk County Archaeologist was instrumental in forming the Trust and is the Hon Secretary; Tom Loader and Jude Plouviez are esteemed retired members of the county unit; Abby Antrobus and Stuart Boulter are current employees of Suffolk County Council.
Once again I note a paradox! The Trust has rarely been called to major action (apart from the Museums review of 1999) because Suffolk has been better at supporting its archaeological service than many counties. We therefore keep a close eye on events and aim to keep our membership updated on current archaeological work in the town.
Nevertheless experience tells us that we can never be complacent. Suffolk remains reasonably well provided for but the dreadful situation in many other counties could be replicated here should political attitudes change and fiscal problems intensify. I can assure you that the IAT is very well-equipped to monitor and act if the need arises.
If you wish to join the Ipswich Archaeological Trust please contact:
Mrs Eileen Ward, Campion, Chapel Lane, Belstead, Ipswich, IP8 3LR.
Details about the Trust can be found on our website: www.ipswichAT.org.uk
The Council for British Archaeology is at www.new.archaeologyuk.org where you will find a wealth of information about archaeology and stories regarding the horrors being enacted elsewhere.
Chris Wiltshire (Chair of the Ipswich Archaeological Trust)