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Column 530had caused very little damage. Originally it had been thought that the 1965 construction had seriously damaged the site.
English Heritage then wrote to Hammerson's architect on 7 September 1988 saying that the site was
"a major archaeological site of national importance, and one where the implications of the proposed new development deserve the fullest consideration in the light of the preliminary archaeological investigation."
The letter continued
"The Museum of London's work within the loading bay indicates that there are exceptionally deep and complex archaeological deposits including several phases of Roman building."
Long discussions then took place between the Museum of London and Hammerson throughout the latter part of last year as they attempted to agree a level of funding for the major excavations and a timescale.
On 22 December 1988 the Department of the Environment granted the developers scheduled monument consent allowing excavation for a period up to six months from the date work was begun. That is when the real error was made and when the confusion started. I remind the House that English Heritage first thought that the site had been extensively damaged. It then discovered that it had not been damaged and was a site of national significance. Some experts are now saying that it is one of the most impressive Roman sites in northern Europe. At that point everyone should have stopped and reflected and considered precisely what needed to be done. Unfortunately, that did not happen. It appears that the Department of the Environment, presumably on the advice of English Heritage, gave scheduled monument consent to the developers, which, if I understand the wording correctly, is a rather nice way of saying that they could knock it down.
The Museum of London began work on 3 January this year, with an agreement to get off the site by 31 May. That is why this Adjournment debate is so important. We are now only a few weeks away from the destruction of a Roman site unequalled in preservation, quality and size anywhere in London, yet the site represents only 20 per cent. of the total complex.
It appears that destruction is absolutely assured unless the Minister takes decisive political action now. I know that she has visited the site, and we are all grateful for that. I am quite sure that she will be as impressed as I was and as everyone else who has seen the site. I believe that her praises will be proclaimed throughout the House if she can devise a formula to save those wonderful Roman remains. There is no excuse for not saving them. A whole range of options have been presented to the Government and to the other bodies concerned.
Technically speaking, English Heritage gave such appalling advice to Ministers that if scheduled monument consent were now to be revoked, English Heritage is likely to be liable to pay compensation to the Hammerson property development group. That would be unrealistic. I am also worried that Hammerson is trying it on by claiming compensation as high as £7 million. English Heritage has only about £10 million for archaeological work throughout the country. Hammerson's is a very wealthy property organisation. It could do its corporate image a great deal of good if it were to ride in like a white knight and save the site. Conversely it will attract a great deal of public odium if it persists in destroying the site after 31 May this year.
Column 531The City of London could intervene. It could save the site by withdrawing planning consent or insisting that the site be preserved in a revised Hammerson development project. There is a number of ways to do that. It could offer the Hammerson group some form of planning gain. It should do something about it. It is scandalous to think that in the City's 800th anniversary--its heritage year--it seems unwilling to lift a finger to save an archaeological jewel nearly 2,000 years old.
Why has part II of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 never been extended to cover the City of London? If any area of the country cries out for extension of that Act, it is the City of London. If part II were extended, it would give some additional protection to sites such as Huggin Hill. Perhaps I am just a cynical old politician but I suspect that the City does not want that extension because it might obstruct the highly profitable deals that it does with property speculators within the square mile. The property speculators, particularly Hammerson property group, are knocking down Dominant house, which has been there only since 1965. It was a speculative office block and it is being knocked down to build yet another speculative office block. That is just what we need in the City of London. It will probably last another 20 or 25 years before being knocked down to make way for yet another speculative office block. In order to build the new block, the Hammerson group is ready to destroy a vital part of our national history.
The Roman history presented by the Huggin Hill complex belongs to the nation as a whole. It is our history, not Hammerson's property, and we have to move to protect it. Whatever legal rights the property group might have, it has no moral right to destroy that site. I do not see why a bunch of property speculators, behaving like up-market Arthur Daleys should be allowed to put their wretched profits before our history.
Whatever else emerges from this issue, Parliament must take action to prevent such a potential disaster from occurring in the future. I shall make a few suggestions to the Minister in that respect. We need new legislation to plug the obvious gaps that the case has revealed. It should be compulsory for any developer proposing work in areas designated to be of national archaeological significance--that must be an area such as the City of London--to carry out, at their own expense, a full archaeological survey before the planning authority even considers granting outline planning consent.
If sites of national significance are uncovered, the Government, on behalf of the nation, should provide the necessary protection and funding. English Heritage has nothing in the way of funds. A total of £10 million does not go far when one is having to look after the archaeology of the entire country. In this case, English Heritage has been found wanting. It does not have the resources to rectify its appalling mistake.
I do not believe that any other country in Europe--not even Albania, for God's sake--would be as irresponsible as Britain with regard to its historic monuments. If between them, the Government, English Heritage, The City and Hammerson fail to save this wonderful historic and unique Roman site at Huggin Hill, they will stand condemned of perpetrating an act of criminal folly. They will have acted like true Vandals of old.
I have a lot of time for the Minister. I know that she will not let me down because I can see it in her face. The
Column 532Minister cannot and must not allow the site to be destroyed. I invite her now to say what action she proposes to take. If she initiates action to save the site, she will deserve the country's thanks and I will be the first one in the House to lead the applause. If she fails, she must take her share of the blame which present and future generations will attach to her. The opportunity is hers and I hope that she will grasp it with both hands.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley) : I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) for raising this extremely important subject. I am well aware of the close interest he has shown in the site, which, as he said, I had an opportunity to visit.
I should like to mention the local Member of Parliament, my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), who has a particular knowledge and interest in the subject. He studied Agricola as a special subject for his university degree. He is also chairman of the standing conference of archaeological unit managers and the British Property Federation group, which has played an important part in these matters.
I should like to make some general remarks before dealing with the specific matters raised by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West. Archaeological remains have always excited much interest and wonder. Our ancestors saw Stonehenge as the work of giants or magicians because they could not conceive that such great stones could have been erected by mortal men.
The growth of archaeology as a scientific discipline over the past century or so means that specialists can tell us much more. They can analyse structures, buildings and artefacts, from which we can learn an increasing amount about our forefathers, their technology, their way of life, their housing and trading contacts. It is no surprise that at the Museum of London, which has played such a part in these matters, up to 400 archaeologists a year work and look at the remains and ruins around the area.
Archaeology is important to our shared understanding of the past and the knowledge that it gives us, but there is an inevitable conflict, to which the hon. Member for Newham, North-West referred. As modern archaeological methods enable us to retrieve ever more information, so modern building methods, with deep foundations, mean that we are more likely to disturb or destroy archaeological remains as we develop our contemporary civilisation. Further, we are more aware of what we are destroying.
Attention is always paid to how much we should preserve. Do we want London to be a modern, living city or a square mile of archaeological remains? That is a difficult question. The past informs the present, but we cannot have a present without a future.
There are many encouraging signs. Over the past few years, archaeologists and developers have increasingly been working together, gaining a better understanding of each other's works. Only recently, another site at York caused much interest. It was thought to be the palace of Septimus Severus, and I also visited that site. I am glad to say that from that a success story has emerged. As a result of goodwill and co-operation, developers have agreed to redesign foundations to preserve the archaeology. As the
Column 533hon. Member for Newham, North-West rightly said, a formula must be devised to make that happen in as many places as possible. Only last week I had an opportunity to address a conference organised by the British Property Federation and the standing conference of archaeological unit managers. Those organisations have produced a valuable code of practice, which has done much to reduce conflicts between archaeologists and developers. I was encouraged to see how the partnership is increasingly working between the two sides. Of course consensus and co- operation is never as newsworthy as conflict, but about £14 million a year is provided voluntarily by developers to help finance archaeological discovery. Co-operation and discussion are essential.
The site has been referred to as the palace of Julius Agricola, and it may be that my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South will be able to offer further substantiation of that. There is disagreement among specialists about the precise ownership of the original building. I am advised that the quality of the remains suggests that the building was designed for an official of high standing. It appears to have been built towards the end of the first century AD but demolished by the Romans 200 years later. The site, as the hon. Gentleman said, was identified in the 1960s from excavation before redevelopment, which revealed parts of an extensive Roman bath complex, much of which was in a good state of preservation. It was scheduled in 1986. Scheduling, as the House well knows, means that a monument is identified as being of national importance. It does not necessarily mean that a site must be preserved for all time, but it means that consent must be sought from the Secretary of State before any works take place which would disturb the monument and even before repairs to a standing monument. It is a stringent procedure which gives a full opportunity for all the implications to be considered before a decision is made and allows for different options of preservation, either in situ or by record, to be made in the light of the circumstances of the case. In 1986, we received an application to demolish Dominant house and to erect a new office block on the site. Before deciding on the consent, we had to make an evaluation. We required the evaluation to enable us to assess, with the benefit of fuller knowledge, the effect of the development on the remains. That evaluation, carried out by the Museum of London over three months in 1988, suggested that the remains on the development site in the trial area had already been damaged by building in the 1960s and by a large Victorian sewer. On that basis, English Heritage advised that preservation by record would be an adequate response. Some parts of the site were to be preserved by bridging over them. The scheduled monument consent was therefore granted in December 1988, subject to a condition that up to six months should be allowed for archaeological investigation by the Museum of London, which had done the original assessment, before the development could proceed. It was given on the best information available at the time and in good faith. It is that archaeological investigation required by the consent which is taking place, funded by the developers to the tune of £500,000, and
Column 534which has revealed remains which, as the hon. Gentleman has said, are more extensive and better preserved than the previous evaluation had suggested. This has led to the genuine dilemma that is being faced.
Intensive discussions have been taking place between the different parties involved to consider the possible options. Indeed, such discussions are going on even as we speak. I fully endorse this approach. I have said that I share the hon. Gentleman's hope and aspiration that we should be able to devise a formula. I have made it clear that it is essential that the developers and archaeologists keep talking. Clearly, a negotiated solution that enables the remains to be preserved while allowing the developers to proceed with their office block would be the ideal solution which would satisfy the interests of both sides as well as the public.
The remains under Dominant house are only a small proportion--some 20 per cent.--of the total site. The remainder of the site, 80 per cent., lies beneath adjoining buildings and is not currently under threat. I assure the House that any application for scheduled monument consent which affected the remainder of the site would be considered extremely carefully. Indeed, the intensive recording of this site which has been taking place in recent months and which the hon. Gentleman and I visited will contribute to a wider understanding of the rest of the remains, whatever the outcome.
I appreciate that preservation by record does not so easily satisfy the genuine and legitimate interest of the public as would preservation of the remains or even their public display, but it ensures that the knowledge which they represent is recorded and preserved. We know much more about Roman London now than we did before this excavation, and that is a tangible gain which will not be lost.
It is important to point out that this site is not the only civil Roman bath site even in the City of London. Another major scheduled Roman bath complex lies only about half a mile away, in Lower Thames street--which is probably well known to my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South--and is well preserved in the basement of an office building, where a major programme of conservation is about to start. There are other complexes elsewhere, such as the well-known ones at Bath, which I visited last year, those at Wroxeter and at Jewry hill, Leicester, both in guardianships to English Heritage, others at Exeter and the Roman palace of Fishbourne.
Mr. Tony Banks : Will the Minister not accept that the expert advice now available, which was not, unfortunately, available at the time, suggests that this complex is the most remarkable in this country notwithstanding the fact that there are other sites close to it? That does not detract from the significance of the site.
Mrs. Bottomley : Much as I applaud the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm, I cannot claim that our expert advisers have suggested that the site is of quite such unique value. I am not in any way trying to detract from the site's importance, but there are other sites and, as archaeologists will know, there are always disagreements and debates about how one find can be weighed against another.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the role of the City of London to revise planning consent. That is primarily a matter for the City of London, as the local planning
Column 535authority, and I know that it has been involved in discussions. Similarly, the hon. Gentleman talked about requiring developers compulsorily to finance archaeology. The developers are already providing £14 million for archaeology on top of the £7
million--sizeable figures--provided by English Heritage. We believe that, in general, the voluntary principle is working well in these matters.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to designation as an area of archaeological importance. The AAI provision of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 provides a mandatory basis for up to four and half months of archaeological investigation before development may proceed. It does not entail a financial commitment. On scheduled sites, such as this, we can already impose conditions requiring archaeological investigation and, of course, in this case we required six months. As has been said, the developers helped to finance that. The AAI provisions do not provide the money and do not require preservation. We may or may not have got those provisions right. English Heritage has been reviewing their operation for us and we have recently received its advice, which we shall be considering carefully in the light of this and other cases. As the provisions stand, they would not have made a difference to this case. We have put the case into context. The hon. Gentleman referred to revoking the consent. Revocation would lead to a requirement for English Heritage to pay compensation for any costs incurred that are made abortive by the revocation. It would be costly--probably running to several million pounds. Yet English Heritage's budget for
Column 536archaeology in the whole country last year was £7 million. The work of English Heritage includes such important and varied projects as the Raunds project, studying a multi-period landscape in Northamptonshire, examination of an early prehistoric site at Boxgrove and an ongoing study at Fishergate in York of mixed Roman, Viking and mediaeval remains. Priorities have to be set and decisions taken.
Preliminary figures suggest that the cost of redesigning the basement of Dominant house would be extremely costly and would run into several million pounds.
Mrs. Bottomley : It raises important principles and there is the question of the ongoing relationship between developers and archaeologists. As I made clear, discussions are continuing between all the parties involved and in consultation with English Heritage, our adviser on such matters. I shall be watching developments carefully. I fully applaud and appreciate the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for the subject. As Minister with responsibility for heritage, it is all too rare that I have the opportunity to discuss such matters in the House. As we move forward at a fast rate of change, all of us appreciate the importance of studying our past, of archaeology and of our heritage. Like him, I very much hope that a way can be found to accommodate all the interests at the site. Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Three o'clock
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