The King’s Speech and Archaeology [A short story]

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Thin pickings for the UK Heritage sector in the King’s Speech.

 



Comedian and writer Alexei Sayle opened his set at the Secret Policeman’s Ball by telling the audience,

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“My name is Alexei Sayle. I am actually a journalist. I’m the gossip columnist for “What’s on in Stoke Newington.
You might have seen it. It’s a big piece of paper with “Fuck All!” written on it.”


Archaeologists and heritage people watching the first King’s Speech for seventy years in the UK Parliament in the hope of finding legislation which might benefit the heritage sector might be forgiven for thinking the same thing.

The one specific piece of heritage legislation was the re-announcement that Rishi Sunak’s Government would introduce a bill to fix the planning system in London, sorry, change the planning system in London, to permit the building of a National Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in the Victoria Tower Garden, next to Parliament.

We will return to that later.

Apart from that there was little to trouble the heritage sector.

Little, but not nothing.

Looking at the seventy eight pages of the Government’s own explanatory notes a number of aspects of the proposed programme could have an impact on archaeology and heritage.

For example, the Government is promising a Data Protection and Digital Information Bill which would have the effect of,

“Allowing businesses to protect personal data in more proportionate and practical ways than under the EU’s GDPR, making them more efficient by eliminating unnecessary paperwork and cutting red tape, whilst maintaining high data protection standards.”

Anyone who has had to deal with GDPR would probably welcome that prospect.

However, they will likely also know how legislating international issues such as Information Technology and data security at a purely national level is fiendishly difficult.

The Government claims also that the rules around using personal data for scientific research would also be clarified and improved by the Bill which could have an effect on some aspects of historical research and consultations.

Meanwhile an effect of the proposed Football Governance Bill might be to offer some additional protection to historic football grounds. The bill proposes that any sale or relocation of a stadium would require regulatory approval, including an owner demonstrating how they have consulted their fans as part of any proposal.

Of course, there may be fewer archaeologists in future to worry about all this.

The Kings speech included a restated commitment on the part of the Government to implement proposals to reduce the number of young people studying “poor quality university degrees” and increase the number undertaking “high quality apprenticeships”.

In Treasury Speak “poor quality degrees” are usually humanities degrees the recipients of which often do not earn enough to pay back their student loans which thus remain on the Government’s books and here it is necessary to point out that pay and career prospects in archaeology are notoriously poor and there is already a sorry list of lost archaeological departments culled by University SMT’s claiming they were no longer financially viable, most recently those at Worcester and Sheffield.

Against that background, whether archaeology will go down the apprenticeship route and cease to be the almost entirely graduate entry profession portrayed in sectoral surveys remains to be seen.

Some advocate that outcome, but most would agree that would be to change radically the nature of at least the professional developer funded sector, arguably rendering it significantly more hierarchical.

With such thin legislative pickings to be gained for archaeology and heritage going forward it is perhaps worth remembering that on the credit side of the ledger the Government has already placed Historic Environment Records [HER’s] on a statutory basis passed the as part of the Levelling Up Bill.

While not a decision to set the public afire with excitement, it does have a significant impact on heritage planning, including cases where heritage pubs mysteriously go afire, and it is something archaeologists have been asking for for over a decade.

Given the state of local authority finances we won’t ask too loudly about where the cash to support this new compulsory resource might come from?

Neither will we speculate too much about the impact of proposed changes to the National Planning Policy Framework, due to be published for consultation this month [November 2023] or of the effect of National Development Management Policies (NDMPs), which add a further tier to planning and the implementation of Environmental Outcome Reports (EORs), which are due to replace Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs).

Meanwhile, on the debit side there is the Government’s continuing support for the A303 upgrade and tunnel on the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site, opposed by UNESCO, unlawfully given the go ahead by Grant Shapps in one of his many previous jobs and now given the green light once again by current Transport Secretary Mark Harper.

Green light that is subject to another judicial review.

Also in the, somewhat full, debit scale is the allegedly unlawful bulldozing through heritage planning rules by the Home Office at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire. That too is subject to a judicial review.

[Thought for the day: Why propose new heritage legislation anyway when Government departments seem to spend most of the time going against that which exists already?]

All of which leaves us with the enabling bill for the National Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre…

As the House of Commons Library background briefing on the National Holocaust Memorial Bill notes, there is broad support for such a memorial.

Indeed, with reports of rising numbers of anti-Semitic hate crimes in London and across the UK, it might seem more necessary than ever.

However, the previous attempt to build the memorial proved controversial even among many members of the Jewish community, including Crossbench member of the House of Lords Baroness Deech, the daughter of a refugee from Nazi Germany who lost a grandmother in the Holocaust,

The memorial was “the right idea in the wrong place” many opponents argued, while in 2020 Baroness Deech wrote,

“The politicisation of the project has destroyed the prospect of its meeting its objectives and the refusal of Ministers to listen to the anxieties of those who lost family members in the Holocaust is
distressing.”

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In the end that iteration of the scheme was blocked on procedural grounds after a judge found that the London County Council (Improvements) Act 1900 required Victoria Tower Gardens to be

“…laid out and maintained … for use as a garden open to the public”.

The reintroduced Bill would disapply the troublesome sections of the 1900 Act.

That said, the story of the National Holocaust Memorial can seem emblematic of the Government’s approach to much of its programme.

The Government, for reasons which are not entirely clear, embarks on a controversial legislative project which seems designed to invite challenges and even create dividing lines. But that is just the surface.

Even if the Government passes the Holocaust Memorial Bill before the General Election which must be held by January 2025, the project would still need to gain planning consent from Westminster Council.

On top of which the estimated cost of the project had jumped from an original estimate of £50m to £139m as of July 2023.

Meanwhile and to cap it all, the project seems to have become accident prone, losing its lead architect when Sir David Adjaye was required to step back after accusations of sexual abuse and harassment involving three women at his practice, Adjaye Associates. The Financial Times reported the women as accusing the world renowned architect of engaging in “different forms of exploitation – from alleged sexual assault and sexual harassment by him to a toxic work culture – that have gone unchecked for years”.

Sir David has denied the claims.

Taken together perhaps these reasons explain why in July 2022 a report by the National Audit Office identified significant risks and fragilities in the management of the project, including the risk of costs and delays caused by dealing with archaeology, while in July (2023) the UK Holocaust Memorial & Learning Centre was rated “Red” by the Government’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority, meaning, in the IPA’s view, the project was undeliverable in its current form.

Like much of the legislative programme announced by Mr Sunak on Tuesday?

Still, at least there is going to be a clamp down on unlicensed pedicabs in London.

Maybe…

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