Policy Review: The Government's Planning White Paper and the absence of Archaeology

Emily Kelso on the Government's Planning White Paper and its repercussions for heritage nationwide.

Emily Kelso
18th December 2020
The Ministry for Housing has released their 'Planning for the Future' White Paper. This is a proposal detailing how to reform the current planning system which contractors, have to operate under in this country. It prioritises the economy and smaller construction firms but little mention is made of archaeology, which currently plays a significant role in the current National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Should this worry us? The short answer is yes.

Released on the 6th of August 2020, the White Paper sets out to reform the previously "sluggish" NPPF introduced by the May government in 2018. This builds upon the 2012 iteration (if you ever wanted an example of 'no Parliament binds its successor', this is it). It seeks to streamline the development application process by cutting some red tape to get the application duration from 7 years to 30 months. The reasons for doing so are to inject money saved into the local economy by making developments occur more quickly and to make the system more accessible for small construction firms.

This proposal initially appears very appealing. This begs the question: why am I here critiquing it on a non-archaeological basis? Well, archaeology plays a bigger and more important role in the NPPF than one would assume.

"Archaeology plays a bigger and more important role in the NPPF than one would assume"

The NPPF currently dictates that all developments must undertake studies called Desk-Based Assessments (DBAs) to check for known and potential heritage in the area. Heritage can come in many forms, from listed buildings to flint scatter and earthworks. The DBA's purpose is to gauge how likely there is to be archaeology in the development area and provide recommendations on whether further action is needed or if the development can go ahead. These are often resented by construction companies who pay for the DBAs and any subsequent archaeological work undertaken. Such a process is important though as important discoveries can be made such as a Roman bath house from Carlisle.

If Archaeology is so important, then why have the government neglected to include it? The answer is clear. The government care little for our heritage and protecting it. They care more for the economy. One need only look at the fact that this document has approval (which they proudly advertise) from MPs, the construction industry the Confederation of British Industry to see who their target audience are. Notice they have not mentioned archaeologists. The Chartered Institute for Archaeologists have since written a statement in response, stating how "extremely sceptical" they are of the proposal since it clearly does not take into account the purpose of archaeology in the NPPF: to discover heritage as well as protect known heritage.

"The government care little for our heritage and protecting it."

I will end by addressing my own bias since I am a student of archaeology. My opposition to this White Paper could easily be chalked up to it being my chosen area of study as well as my critical stance on the government already clearly expressed in the article I wrote on Dominic Cummings. This is not an isolated incident, however. The Transport Secretary approving plans for a tunnel beside Stonehenge in spite of protests from UNESCO and historians also fits this alarming trend of the government prioritising the economy over heritage.

This should not be a battle, but a battle it shall be, for archaeologists and historians to face alone. Our heritage belongs to everyone, not just those who claim to understand it. It is up to us to remind the government that our economy is powered by our heritage, just as much as the economy can boost our heritage. The 37.9 million tourists reported visiting in 2017 by the Office for National Statistics illustrates this well. Only by working together can we succeed in saving our heritage for the people of tomorrow from a government who dares to suggest they are doing the same.

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AUTHOR: Emily Kelso
Third year History and Archaeology student. Also a Comment Sub-Editor.

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