In late June the archaeological world was thrown into turmoil by proposals to remove the requirement for archaeological investigations in Fenland. After much protest (for a full summary of the affair see here) the proposals appear to have been quietly shelved, allowing anyone in the UK who cares about heritage to relax.
Or not, as it would turn out.
In the shadow of the National Policy Planning Framework, Sandwell Municipal Borough Council have decided to sack their Borough Archaeologist and the Historic Environment Records (HER) Officer. These two people were, in the words of Black Country Core Stratergy, crucial in sustaining and reinforcing the “special character [of the] historic aspects of the following locally distinctive elements of the Black Country” (info via BAJR).
Despite adopting this as official Sandwell policy in February – a policy which Sandwell see as setting out the vision, objectives and strategy for future development in the area up to 2026 – the council have suddenly decided that the very people who undertake key parts of it are “not core services to the planning service and could almost be considered to be a luxury“.
This is a decision that RESCUE (the British Archaeological Trust) have described, in a letter to the Council, as being:
…inconceivable [to remove the services]…and remain compliant with the current and proposed planning system without making satisfactory alternative arrangements. In this regard, the Sandwell Equality Impact Assessment’s conclusion…Is wholly and conclusively both misguided and incorrect.
Before going on to ask:
…how the council are proposing to continue to provide the necessary planning and development control services in relation to archaeology, and how Sandwell Historic Environment Record will be accessible to the residents of the area and those engaged in working within the planning system, to ensure that the Council continues to comply with European Law, the national guidance set out in PPS5, and the forthcoming NPPF.
These are valid questions; questions that the Council do not appear to have made any effort to address in publicly available documentation. This is a decision which will permanently deprive current and future residents of their heritage. Instead the past now belongs to property developers, who need no longer consider the wider set of social responsibilities that comes with land ownership. Whilst recognising that Sandwell MBC faces a difficult budget handed down by Westminster, it is nevertheless disappointing to see a Labour council making a decision that seems consummate with the beliefs of Eric Pickles.
If you are unhappy with the actions of Sandwell then please consider contacting the leader of the council, Councillor Darren Cooper, and check out some of the groups organising to protect our heritage.