On 30 June, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a speech launching a programme for ‘jobs, infrastructure, and economic growth’. The speech introduced new policies for England, including a range of new permitted development rights, and trailed a package of “the most radical reforms to our planning system since the Second World War”.
We join with colleagues across the planning and natural environment sectors in rejecting the basis of the argument that regulation for the natural and historic environments is unnecessary and harmful to economic growth, for which there is almost no evidence.
Some of the permitted development changes announced already are likely to have impacts on the historic environment of England, particularly on buried heritage assets with archaeological interest on brownfield sites, undesignated historic buildings and the setting of designated heritage assets, local character and amenity. We will await detailed policy documents so that we may understand if/how the Government intends to ensure heritage is protected and if certain heritage assets, such as conservation areas will be exempted, or heritage impacts mitigated.
The speech also promised a planning policy paper, to be published in July, that would “set out our plan for comprehensive reform of England’s seven-decade old planning system”. At the current time it is unclear how far these reforms will go, but there have been various rumours in the national press, that plans to substantially bypass planning permission were being created in order to make it "much more clear what can be done in places".
Archaeology is ready to play its part in the delivery of more homes and infrastructure. Archaeology actively helps people plan for and deliver great places to live and work. It already contributes to and enables development, undertaking work to help developers understand the historic dimension to their sites, manage risk, avoid unnecessary harm and mitigate unavoidable harm to heritage assets, offsetting this harm through the creation of public benefit. Archaeology is also a vital contributor to place shaping and local character and affords opportunities for public participation in better understanding and valuing places.
Applied archaeology employs around 5000 people in the UK to facilitate this process through the development-led system. These workers, during the height of lockdown, were encouraged to continue working alongside key workers, contributing to the sustainability of the economy and the delivery of vital development.
It is, therefore, particularly concerning that the Prime Minister thought to single out and make light of the work of our professional ecologist colleagues by referring to “newt counting delays” to illustrate where development is slowed as a result of regulation.
It is vital that Government does not either falsely accuse nor accidentally sweep up archaeological safeguards into their agenda to relax or bypass planning regulations. There remains very little evidence that either archaeological or ecological regulation is ineffective. It is worth noting that the 2018 Letwin Review found no fault with these regulations, instead finding that the fundamental driver of ‘build out rates’ once planning permission is granted is the ‘absorption rate’ – the rate at which market sale homes can be sold without undermining the local market.
The Council for British Archaeology and the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists will be working hard to promote our concerns to Parliamentarians and to Government on these issues. We will be advocating in the strongest possible terms, making common cause with colleagues in the natural environment sector, to make the case that archaeological safeguards must have place in any approach to the planning of development. We will be working with sector colleagues through Heritage Alliances Spatial Planning Advocacy Group and advising Government and hope to work with the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group, to ensure that safeguards for archaeology are maintained in any forthcoming policy reform.
We are encouraging CIfA and CBA members to write to their MPs to make clear the value that heritage has in the planning system and stress that Government must protect the provision of archaeological safeguards and ask them to join the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group.
You can find an advocacy toolkit on the CBA website which includes advice on writing to your MP.
We will be publishing specific information to assist members in writing to their MPs soon.