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Leading heritage body the Council for British Archaeology has broken ranks with other heritage organisations, including Historic England and has issued a hard hitting submission objecting in the strongest terms to the controversial plan to build a swimming pool at the listed White Hart hotel in the centre of the historic cathedral city of Lincoln. Opponents of the swimming pool claim the construction of the pool will destroy nationally significant archaeology.

Currently celebrating its eightieth anniversary, the Council for British Archaeology is a national amenity society, set up to promote archaeology and advocate for the conservation
of the historic environment across Great Britain. Part of that work includes commenting on planning applications, particularly where the CBA believes there are important heritage
issues which need to be considered.

In the case of the controversial plan by property developer Mr Andrew Long to build a swimming pool and spa in the Grade 2 listed White Hart hotel in Bailgate Lincoln, the submission by the CBA Casework Officer for Listed Buildings concludes that the proposal breaches not just the council’s own local plan for central Lincoln which is meant to guide local development, but critically the CBA argues, the planning application is also contrary to the rules and guidance contained within the National Planning Policy Framework [NPPF] set by the Government in Westminster, which is designed to be followed by all local planners.

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In particular, the submission states, the Lincoln planners must apply paragraph 206 of the NPPF which states that any damage of loss to archaeology as nationally significant as the medieval, Viking and Roman layers known to be present beneath the White Hart should require clear and convincing justification and be “wholly exceptional”.

The CBA state none of these terms apply.

For example, considering the statement of public benefit relating to health, economic and employment benefits to the local economy submitted by Mr Long as part of his application the CBA submission finds the application wanting, arguing,

“These are private benefits to the hotel business, coupled with minimally skilled employment opportunities for the city and luxury paid-for experiences
by a small group of people.”

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This leads to the brutal conclusion that,

“The scale of public benefit is between nil and negligible.”

The submission also considers the benefits claimed to be derived from public outreach including talks and local media involvement to be,

“…nowhere near proportionate mitigation to the total excavation of an area of nationally significant archaeology containing Medieval, Roman and (probable) Viking layers…”

Ultimately the CBA advises Lincoln city council that Mr Long’s application should be either withdrawn by the applicant, or, if Mr Long refuses to do so, that the application is refused
by the Local Planning Authority, Lincoln.

However, the CBA does offer Mr Long an exit route, suggesting that, while it is the only justifiable option in such an archaeologically significant location, Mr Long could reconfigure
the project to create a swimming pool above ground, leaving the archaeology preserved “in situ”.

The CBA point out that preservation in situ is the preferred solution nationally in such cases.

Meanwhile, in marked contrast to the active participation in the controversy over Mr Long’s planning application by the CBA, the national regulator for archaeology and heritage
Historic England, has so far chosen to make no comment about the case in spite of everybody involved, including Mr Long’s consultants, agreeing that the archaeology present is of national importance, thus falling squarely within Historic England’s remit.

This silence on the part of the only national body with powers to participate in such cases has concerned many independent experts, who have expressed concern that, in allowing
the planning application to proceed at all, the Lincoln planners were misapplying both the NPPF and their own council’s local plan for central Lincoln.

In the worst case that planning consent is granted on the basis of misapplied national guidance opponents of Mr Long’s pool plan fear that consent would lower the bar on heritage protection nationwide and make it easier for developers to damage or destroy nationally important archaeology.

With those fears in mind thePipeLine approached Historic England to ask why the organisation had remained silent when it has officers whose job is to monitor and comment on such cases?

Historic England replied,

“We are aware of the proposals for the Grade II listed White Hart Hotel, Lincoln.

In the case of 2024/0088/LBC, we referred the council to the expertise of their own specialist advisors.

We would not anticipate a consultation on 2024/0087/FUL in respect of development affecting the site of a scheduled monument. This remains a matter for the Local Planning Authority (Lincoln City Council), with the advice of the City Archaeologist.”

Historic England concluded by telling us,

“If there is additional information that people feel needs to be highlighted in the decision-making making process, we would advise that they should pass that to the
City Council planning team.”

Because this response appeared to be telling people with concerns about the planning application for the White Hart, and the way it was being handled, to take those concerns to the very same people whose conduct of the case was being questioned in the first place, we asked Historic England to clarify just what they meant.

In doing so we suggested to Historic England that the entire planning system is built on trust in the professionalism, accuracy and objectivity of those involved, and that Mr Long’s planning application has raised issues which, unless openly discussed and adjudicated, could threaten that trust, not to mention the ability of the heritage sector to protect even the UK’s most significant heritage assets.

It could even, we suggested, bring that system and the reputations of those involved in the Lincoln application, into question.

Essentially, we asked, was Historic England telling the independent experts, archaeologists, and the public, that, in spite of the controversy over its treatment of the planning application for the White Hart, Lincoln city council is to be allowed to mark its own homework with no outside moderation, potentially leading the setting of a damaging national precedent by local authority officers, possibly without even a public discussion at a planning meeting?

A spokesperson for Historic England responded saying:

“We are aware of this planning application. It is a live case currently being considered by the Local Planning Authority who are the decision maker.
Where a Local Authority considers a proposed development would affect the site of a Scheduled Monument, we are a statutory consultee. They have not consulted us in this instance.”

The spokesperson concluded,

“As we have not provided advice to the Council on this live case, it would not be appropriate for us to provide commentary to others regarding the same application.
If you have further questions or concerns, we would recommend you speak to the Local Planning Authority directly.”

The precise wording used does of course leave open the possibility that Historic England could yet intervene, if they are asked to do so.

In that context it remains to be seen whether the forceful intervention of the Council for British Archaeology, and an increasing awareness of the Lincoln controversy in the wider
archaeology sector, will prompt Historic England to finally intervene.

For many the case that Historic England must intervene is simple.

If two sets of experts, the consultants employed by Mr Long and Lincoln Council’s City Archaeologist and planning officers on the one side and the Casework Officer at the Council for British Archaeology on the other, can look at the same source material and the same national and local guidance, and reach diametrically opposite conclusions, one side or the other must be wrong and for the good of the wider heritage sector it must be made clear which is wrong.

Ahead of the case being taken to court in a judicial review, which remains a possibility, the only neutral party capable of adjudicating the issues is Historic England in its role as statutory consultee and advisor.

And if it fails to intervene in such a high profile case, with such high stakes, the question which many in the heritage sector will inevitably ask is,

“What is Historic England actually for?”

The consultation regarding Mr Long’s planning application for the White Hart swimming pool runs until Monday 18 March.

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

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