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Leadership bodies in UK archaeology appears silent as the evidence increases that the administration of UK Prime Minister Liz Truss intends to move from talk of deregulation in environmental law and the planning system to action as soon as possible. Sunday’s Observer reports that the Environment Land Management Scheme (Elms), a flagship Green policy of former Environment Secretary Michael Gove, which was designed to enhance habitats for rare species and create areas for carbon capture on the way to the Government’s target of net zero carbon by 2050, is to be abandoned in favour of a crude system of payments based on acreage. All this as Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng has signalled that the Government intends to overturn thirty years of legal and procedural precedent and practice by weakening, or abandoning altogether, environmental checks and balance’s in the planning system, many of which are based on European Union law and directives which face extinction under a Bill driven by Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg. If carried through the moves could represent an existential threat to commercial archaeology as it has been practiced since the early 1990’s and the jobs of the thousands of archaeologist who work in the sector.

The apparent axing of ELMS, which became public when individuals began to report the cancellation of meetings scheduled to discuss the scheme, comes on top of Mr Kwarteng’s mini budget and Growth Plan, which is predicated on deregulation, and the tabling by Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg of The retained EU law revocation and reform bill.

The bill is designed to,

“…revoke certain retained EU law; to make provision relating to the interpretation of retained EU law and to its relationship with other law; to make provision relating to powers to modify retained EU law to enable the restatement, replacement or updating of certain retained EU law; to enable the updating of restatements and replacement provision.”

The Government’s Growth Plan announces that new legislation will be brought forward in the coming months to address alleged barriers [to development] by reducing, what are described as, “unnecessary burdens” to speed up the delivery of, what the Government describes as, much-needed infrastructure and to free up land for housing.

The plan then makes clear just which burdens the Government wants to streamline or remove altogether from the planning system.

The Government’s approach is designed to,

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• reduce the burden of environmental assessments

• reduce bureaucracy in the consultation process

• reform habitats and species regulations

These changes will be most obvious to archaeologists, environmentalists and the public, in the thirty eight so called “Investment Zones”, which are found across much of England from Plymouth in the south west to the Tees Valley in the north east.

In these zones the Government intends that,

“The need for planning applications will be minimised and where planning applications remain necessary, they will be radically streamlined.”

This is effectively a return to the concept of Zonal Planning which was included in the Planning Bill introduced by former Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, but subsequently abandoned after the Government lost badly by elections in previously safe rural seats in Buckinghamshire and Somerset.

However, the Growth Plan published by the Treasury to accompany Mr Kwarteng’s statement also includes eighty six road projects, ten rail projects and twenty one energy projects, which the document states will be subject to an “accelerated” process leading to construction beginning by the end of 2023.

Following Mr Kwarteng’s statement the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds [RSPB] was quick to announce that it was angry at the Government’s new stance, which appears to contradict Green policies included in the Conservative manifesto for the 2019 General Election. The RSPB also announced that it would mobilises its over one million members and ahead of a more detailed response asked those members to write to their MP and impress on them that the Government does not do this in your name.

Other organisations have also been quick to announce their opposition to the Government’s policy.

Friends of the Earth criticised Mr Kwarteng’s thinking saying,

“The Chancellor is treating economic growth and environmental protection as mutually exclusive, but they’re not. It’s this tired thinking that is driving the energy, climate and ecological crises we’re facing.” adding,

“Almost two-thirds of infrastructure priorities announced are road schemes, along with five North Sea oil and gas developments. Surely the government can’t pretend its plans are consistent with emissions targets?”

While retweeting the RSPB’s thread the National Trust stated,

“We’ll be working with other nature charities and supporters to defend important protections for nature long into the future.”

On Sunday, 25 September the National Trust went further.

In a hard hitting media statement Trust director Hilary McGrady said,

“We are at a crucial moment for our natural environment. Nature is in decline and we need bold action on climate change. These concerns are shared by the public: poll upon poll show that further ambition on Net Zero and nature are widely supported.

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Rather than ramp up action to support our environment, this Government appears however to be heading in the opposite direction. Environmental protections are dismissed as ‘burdens’, whilst investment and growth are pitted against nature and climate action.” 

Taking on the issue of the so-called Investment Zones in particular and including the H word- Heritage, Ms McGrady said,

“The new Investment Zones represent a free-for-all for nature and heritage, yet we know that green spaces and beauty are vital to attract investment and for a good quality of life. Likewise a rumoured return to EU-style land subsidies will squander one of the biggest Brexit opportunities for nature, fatally undermining improvements to the nature, soil and water upon which sustainable food production depends.”

She concluded,

“The Trust will always defend protections for nature and heritage, and we will respond in full to any proposals. The UK has led the way in recent years on environment action – from farm subsidy reform to COP26. It mustn’t abandon this for our future’s sakes.”

However, in spite of the fact the stakes could not be higher for archaeologists; EU derived law embeds the polluter pays principle which is the foundation of archaeology in the planning system, and commercial archaeology derives almost all of its income from work connected to planning and development; the voices of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, the Federation of Archaeology Managers and Employers, and the Council for British Archaeology have been absent from the Government’s apparent assault on environmental protection.

A number of archaeologists have taken to social media to express astonishment that, while organisations such as the RSPB, and National Trust could respond within hours to the apparent threat to core environmental processes and principles expressed by Mr Kwarteng on Friday, the established voices for professional archaeology [CIfA] and the organisation representing companies involved in developer funded archaeology which have most to lose if the planning system is streamlined to reduce or eliminate environmental mitigations including archaeology, FAME, have been unable, or unwilling to even acknowledge the chancellors statement and Mr Rees-Mogg’s bill.

This will be doubly frustrating for concerned archaeologists because the criticism from the RSPB, the National Trust and others, is clearly hitting home, with parts of the Government appearing to fear it is losing control of the narrative around the proposed changes to expert mass membership organisations with well over five million members [and voters] between them.

On Saturday, [24 September 2022] the communications team at the Department of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs felt compelled to tweet,

✅ We have a plan for economic growth.

❌ It is not true to claim we are attacking nature nor going back on our commitments.

We have legislated through the Environment Act and will continue to improve our regulations and wildlife laws in line with our ambitious vision.

A spokesperson for the Treasury told the Guardian, that in the department’s view investment zones will,

“…enable locally elected leaders to set out bold new visions for their areas, and we want to ensure that they have every tool available to them in driving forwards local growth.”

The spokesperson added:

“The government remains committed to setting a new legally binding target to halt the decline of biodiversity in England by 2030.

We are working closely with areas to develop tailored proposals that support their ambitions and deliver benefits for local residents.”

However, given these responses failed to address either the scaling back of planning controls described in the Growth Plan and confirmed in his statement to the House of Commons by Mr Kwarteng, nor the proposals to remove legislation derived from the EU like the Environment Directives, the responses from Defra and the Treasury have been met with some scepticism.

Mr Kwarteng’s special budgetary operation, while far reaching in its scope, was not a conventional budget, and it has been seen by many commentators as high risk, as lacking evidence for the decisions taken, and even as reckless. However, Mr Kwarteng and Prime Minister Liz Truss seem determined to push forward with their vision of a deregulated UK Economy as soon as possible. Perhaps they are hoping that they can bring forward the necessary legislation before the kind of opposition in Parliament and outside which sank Mr Jenrick’s planning bill can organise.

The rapid response of major players like the RSPB and the National Trust and the prospect of the active intervention of many of the millions of voters they can mobilise, suggest that strategy may be optimistic.

Faced with this consequential, perhaps even existential, contest, and the absence of archaeology and heritage from the media narrative so far, many archaeologists will hope that their own organisations can recover from being left standing at the start and make common cause in defence of the environment, or they may well switch their allegiance and support to those who are not just still in the race, but actually seem organised enough to want to win it.

Meanwhile, among the transport projects included in the Government list is the controversial A303 upgrade on the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site.

The inclusion of the A303 upgrade in the list has raised eyebrows among opponents of the scheme as the consent given by former Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was ruled unlawful following a Judicial Review and referred back to Mr Shapps for reconsideration.

His successor Anne-Marie Trevelyan is yet to announce the result of the renewed process formally, but the inclusion of the A303 upgrade in the accelerated project list suggests if not a done deal, at least a direction of travel.

While, in what might be described as the Stonehenge Alliance memorial policy, the Growth Plan also includes a commitment on the part of the Government to consider options for changing the Judicial Review system to avoid claims which, the Government asserts, cause unnecessary delays to delivery.

Claims such as, for example, the Secretary of State has made a decision which is unlawful.

Cards on the Table: This article was amended at 14:34 on 25/09/2022 to include the response from Hilary McGrady of the National Trust.

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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