It is somewhat surprising to think that it is only since 1990, with PPG16, that archaeology has been a material consideration in the planning process. Before this time, the decision to undertake any archaeological work on a site was at the discretion of the developer, and therefore not exactly considered a priority unless it involved a more obvious project. But not all archaeology is that obvious, and to minimise the potential for any hidden surprises at a late stage, archaeology should be a key consideration at the outset.
From 1990 onwards, developers became responsible for funding archaeological work in support of their planning applications. This drew archaeologists into a commercial construction market, working alongside demolition contractors, engineers, architects and builders. As a consequence the biggest funders of archaeological work are property developers.
Gradually developers are appreciating the importance of understanding the extent and nature of archaeological risk at an early stage. But even so, archaeologists are still often being introduced to a development project at too late a stage. It goes without saying that the sooner archaeologists are brought in, the more likely that the scope of the archaeological work can be focused, negotiated and managed on behalf of the development.
Developers are not necessarily to blame for this situation, the reality is that they and their project teams have so many facets to consider when drawing up a deliverable development that it should not be for them to understand the quirks of the planning process in relation to archaeology and discharging conditions. Often this becomes a process that can be ‘dealt with later’, little thinking about how long that can actually take.
Gaining the necessary approvals before you even step foot on site can take up to 2 months. Unfortunately, many developers do not engage archaeologists until demolition is well underway and often machine excavators and cranes are already on site. The result of this often proves to be stand-down time across busy urban sites with archaeologists furiously trying to negotiate approvals with a Local Authority that is already overcapacity.
There are also wider benefits to giving consideration to archaeology at an early stage – beyond preventing delays at a crucial time in the programme. By tapping in to the public engagement value of the cultural material at an early stage it is possible to maximise the positive impact of the results for the developer; archaeology is part of the narrative of a development site and there is a virtue to be made of it.
If archaeology is to remain part of the planning process and in the public interest, a more business-led, focused approached needs to be applied to work on development sites. The industry needs to continue to produce high quality work, with greater focus on client care and collaboration with other construction contractors to achieve an effective result. At Iceni we recognise this and our new archaeology service seeks to bring wider benefits to our clients, and more importantly help mitigate risk at a later stage.