Future of English Heritage

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:14 pm on 2nd April 2014.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 3:14 pm, 2nd April 2014

I declare an interest as a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Today’s debate has centred on the conservation and management of English Heritage properties, and I understand why, but I want to move the debate on to the bigger picture, because English Heritage is responsible for much more than that. The hon. and right hon. Members who have spoken have alluded to that, but have not concentrated on it. For example, English Heritage’s relationship with local authorities, which manage in excess of 95% of archaeology, is perceived to be in need of improvement.

As we move forward into the Historic England situation, there is a need for some robust taking-by-the-collar and shaking out of what is happening. We are in a period of change in the archaeological world—quite radical change, in some cases, and it needs to be made more radical through English Heritage’s role in the whole exercise. I have recently examined the relationship between archaeology and local government services. English Heritage was interviewed as part of that work, and it can play a substantial role in taking the discussion forward. The planning system is where archaeology comes into contact with the real world, and the arrangements need to be worked out in greater detail.

The current backlog was mentioned earlier. I am sure that the issue can be raised at different levels, but English Heritage told us that the problem with trying to make the process of museums accessing archaeological material more robust is the limited amount of control that English Heritage has. Almost every piece of Roman brick found on an excavation is bagged up and sent off in a box, at enormous cost, to be put into a museum collection. We do not need to keep every piece of Roman tile or brick. We need someone to make a judgment about the importance of finds. It would be easy for English Heritage to set a scope for that in its dealings with local authorities and archaeologists, but it cannot, because the list of what should be included and how it should be accessed is the responsibility of Arts Council England. English Heritage needs to do some work to wrest that responsibility back to where it needs to be.

English Heritage could play a much bigger role. Those in the development industry, which pays for most of our archaeology, are short of any idea of what service they will receive when they undertake the necessary archaeology to meet the sustainability criterion of the national planning policy framework. English Heritage could prioritise the facilitation of service level agreements between authorities and the public at large. It would not need to produce or monitor the agreements, but it could be effective in taking the initiative with archaeologists and developers. A suggestion was made to the Minister about how that relationship could be funded in future, and although I will not say anything in detail about that, there is a role for English Heritage and Historic England to play as distributors of funds to local authorities that sign up to service level agreements. If a service level agreement is signed up to, the developer will know what it is getting and the funding can be distributed.

That is an important role that English Heritage and Historic England could play in the development of this area. It would be far from turning English Heritage into a creature of development, but would recognise who pays for the archaeology in this country. Something should be given back to the developers for their contribution to the preservation of our heritage.