The Curious Incident of the Local Authority Archaeology Website in the Night-Time

As some of you may remember in late September 2011 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“. 

I last wrote about Sandwell’s decision in December 2011 after the council, in an astonishing move, deemed Twitlonger an appropriate service to announce that they had cut their archaeologists.

A few months later I had a further discussion on Twitter with the leader of Sandwell MBC Councillor Darren Cooper about the nature of the consultation that occurred prior to the Council’s decision. During this I noticed that there had been some changes on the Sandwell website (read the tweets that led to this part of the conversation: 1, 2 and 3):

Before:

Sandwell archaeology page

Sandwell MBC archaeology page before….

(You can read an archived version of this page over on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine)

After:

Sandwell Archaeology webpage

…and Sandwell MBC archaeology page after…

At this point the official Sandwell MBC account kindly joined in to clarify the situation:

Oh wow! I’d been overly suspicious of their motivations, they were merely giving the site a good old overhaul. What’s more their tweet seemed to suggest that the archaeology pages were popular:

Or maybe not…

Strange thing was I couldn’t find a single other page that had been removed as part of their web improvement program.

But again perhaps I was being overly suspicious. I mean after all, here they were asking for examples of local authority archaeology websites they could use as good templates. I thought it would be terribly rude not to help them:

And the wider Twitter archaeological community kindly obliged:

Sandwell seemed happy to have had so many suggestions:

And so I signed off, looking forward to seeing how they developed the archaeology pages of their website with so much support behind them.

16 Months Later…

Are you excited? I know I am! Let’s take a look at how Sandwell got on with their new page.

First off we’ll try the URLs used in the screengrabs above (first URL, second URL):

Sandwell MBC website 2013, the URL previously used for the archaeology section.

Sandwell MBC website 2013, the URL previously used for the archaeology section. A distinct lack of update (not even a page title now), but the ability to ‘like’ remains…

Oh, thats a shame, but perhaps they’ve moved the information to a different section. Let’s have a search of the website for ‘archaeology’, see what comes up.

The results? A news story about a Time Team style dig at a council property (it’s brilliant to see Sandwell Museums & Nexus Heritage partnering to do this, check out their photos here) and this page on the Historic Built Environment. On the latter, two thirds of the way down, are eight sentences on archaeology in which they provide details of the HER and forget to capitalise the borough name.

This is a real shame. The previous pages might not have been the best example of a local authority providing archaeological information (see the Leicestershire and Aberdeenshire links above for examples of what is possible), but at least they existed. They provided an overview of both Sandwell’s scheduled monuments and the remains that, though not of national importance, were significant to the area (something that used to be recognised by the council).

So why the need to delete these pages? They could have simply replaced ‘borough archaeologist’  with ‘conservation officer’, the remainder of the information would still have been valid. Consequently one can only feel that this is more to do with obfuscating Sandwell MBC’s role in preserving it’s peoples heritage than any drive to provide a better service.

Politicking

As a councillor for more years than I care to remember, I can see just why most people get turned off by local government finance.

The powers-that-be seem to do their best to make the subject as complicated and difficult to get into as possible.

But, of course, the money the council has is absolutely fundamental to what we can do. All our hopes of action to make Sandwell a better place for us all are just that – hopes and dreams – without hard cash to turn them into reality.

Nobody needs reminding in these days of austerity that Sandwell (and all other councils up and down the country) are facing cuts of many millions of pounds in the money we get from the Government…

In an ideal world we wouldn’t be cutting budgets, but things are rarely ideal. One thing’s for sure: the more views we have, the more chance we have of making good decisions.

Councillor Darren Cooper

In the above quote Councillor Cooper has summed up the common contemporary response to issues like this, and I agree with him. I understand local authorities have been put in a horrific position by Coalition cuts, but this does not excuse rendering obscure the decisions they make.

If local authorities and other organisations forced into savage cuts (hello National Museum Wales) want to retain confidence then they need to have the courage of their convictions and be transparent with both local populations and relevant outside stakeholders. They need to be open about the choices they have made and the ongoing impact (not pretending that a service never really existed). They need to engage in real conversations, not cheap realpolitiks.

It’s not about archaeology, it’s about being honest.

UPDATE (21/06/2013)

Sandwell kindly responded on Twitter to some of the points I raised in this post. I’ve combined these into a new blog here.

Written by +Matt Nicholas

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