In late September news broke that Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council was planning on sacking it’s Borough archaeologist after it declared that archaeology and heritage were “not core services to the planning service and could almost be considered to be a luxury“.
This was met with dismay by the archaeological community; Rescue (the British Archaeological Trust) described the proposal as “wholly and conclusively both misguided and incorrect” and the Institute for Archaeologists pointed out that Sandwell risked a “Judicial Review or investigation by the Local Authority Ombudsman” for “ill-informed decision-making about the historic environment”.
Sandwell Council seemed to operating a policy of radio silence on the matter. Then, one day Council Leader Darren Cooper retweeted a message about a heritage trail in the area. Pleased to see that the MBC leader appeared to view local heritage as important I tweeted a question at him, to which I received the following response:
Rescue then responded, asking Cllr. Cooper to confirm that there would be a consultation if changes to heritage provision were planned:
So, all fine and dandy then!
Last week at the Central TAG conference in Birmingham I heard rumours that Sandwell had, in fact, sacked both it’s Borough Archaeologist and Historic Environments Records officer. Concerned at this (what about that consultation?) I looked at the Sandwell website for archaeology (screen grab here):
The archaeological team at Sandwell comprises of the Borough Archaeologist, Planning Archaeologist and Historic Environment Records Officer.
It is the responsibility of the Borough Archaeologist, as part of the Historic Environment Team, to curate the both known and unknown archaeology of the Borough. The team maintains the Borough’s Historic Environment Record which has an on going list of all the historic and archaeological sites both recently discovered and known in the borough.
So, according to the official council website they still employ archaeologists.
I wasn’t satisfied by this however; so tweeted at Cllr. Cooper to try and discover if anything had changed, receiving this response:
Quickly followed by this from the official Sandwell Twitter account:
The link takes you the only official statement on the future of archaeology in Sandwell (Why on earth they deemed TwitLonger an appropriate service on which to provide this god knows), which states:
There have been two redundancies because of the move away from an in-house archaeological service, alongside others across planning.
Our conservation officer will play a key role in this – and we are confident we will continue to provide an effective service including a comprehensive Sites and Monuments Record.
Our new arrangements also include working in partnership with another local authority to provide archaeological services when required.
(screen grab available here)
So, to summarise: Sandwell has sacked it’s archaeologists (apparently without the promised consultation) with their workload now to be transferred to a single conservation office (no word on if this person has any archaeological training)*.
This is an astonishing decision and, along with the method of communicating it (seriously, Twitlong?!), it suggests a high degree of cynicism by Sandwell MBC in their attitude to the public and the past. They have unilaterally made a choice that will deprive local people of access to their history; a choice that may result in the permanent loss of heritage that belongs to all. Shame on Sandwell.
*Rumour has it the decision to outsource was a late addition taken (post redundancies) only when Sandwell suddenly realised that, actually, they are obliged to provide some sort of heritage service….
Written by +Matt Nicholas