Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Essex Society for Archaeology and History

1.1  The Society's background

  The Society was founded in 1852 with the primary object of promoting and encouraging the study of archaeology and history in the historic county of Essex. During the 150 years of its existence the Society has achieved these objectives in a variety of ways, and has made numerous significant contributions to the better understanding of the county's historic heritage. Amongst its other objectives, the Society has always aimed to educate the wider community, as well as other bodies, on matters of mutual interest and concern, and it is for this reason that this submission is being made. The last membership figures showed that the Society had 410 individual members and 87 institutional members (principally universities and libraries). Unfortunately the Society has only recently been made aware of this enquiry, so its observations will be confined to what it considers to be certain key areas.

1.2  Priorities for the forthcoming Heritage White paper

    (a)  Heritage Environment Record (formerly Sites and Monuments Record). It is the Society's view that there should be a statutory obligation to maintain the HER. It is an essential resource which enables local authorities to make informed decisions on planning applications. Without this information, there is no doubt that sites of major archaeological importance will be overlooked and irreparably damaged by development. In Essex, the HER is maintained at present by Essex County Council on behalf of local authorities throughout the county. One unitary authority maintains its own HER, with, in our view, inadequate resources. The county council HER has recently been threatened by severe spending cuts in the heritage budget, and is surviving at present on short term contracts from local authorities. This is very unsatisfactory for a service which is vital for the identification and protection of important archaeological sites.

    (b)  Archive services. The Society believes that archive services, which are essential for a better understanding of the historic environment, should also be made statutory. One result of the heritage budget cut referred to in (a) above was a significant cut-back in the services provided by the county record office, and the closure of one its branches. Unless this service is made statutory, it will remain highly vulnerable to budget cuts.

  In the Society's view, both of these services are so essential for the protection and enhancement of the county's heritage that they should have statutory protection.

1.2  Balance between heritage and development

  The Society's view is that this is currently heavily weighted in favour of development, and that this balance should be moved in favour of heritage. In recent years the attitude towards re-use of old buildings has changed considerably, and this should perhaps be reflected in legislation. The fate of listed buildings is of particular concern, and there have been many instances in this county of the deliberate neglect of structures which are unwanted, or in the way of development plans. Local authorities are very reluctant to use their existing powers of enforcement or compulsory purchase because of the very high costs involved. These costs are not budgeted for, and are not usually recoverable. This results in a "developer's charter" whereby a long period of deliberate neglect is usually rewarded with a vacant site and no financial penalty.

  This is extremely unsatisfactory and poses a constant threat to the heritage. One of the prime purposes of listing buildings is undermined unless there is adequate protection in place to protect them from unscrupulous or negligent owners. The Society believes that local authorities need to be funded adequately to enforce existing legislation and encouraged to use it more effectively.

1.3  Funding

    (a)  The Society has general concerns about this, and fears that heritage funding will be increasingly threatened by the more glamorous demands of the 2012 Olympics. It is essential that heritage funding should be clearly protected.

    (b)  The Society has a specific concern about VAT on historic building repairs. New buildings are exempt, and this provides a perverse incentive in favour of development over conservation. It also may encourage the neglect referred to in 1.2 above. In our view, all repairs to listed buildings should be zero rated.

1.4  Adequate supply of professionals with conservation skills

  The Society's view is that the county council does an excellent job in providing professional expertise in archaeology and historic buildings, as well as organising practical training courses for craftsmen involved in historic building repair. However all of these have been severely threatened by the budgetary cuts already referred to.

  Until this year, professional advice on archaeology and historic buildings had been provided free of charge to local authorities, and the county council had assembled a remarkable team with knowledge ranging from the Bronze Age to World War II fortifications. As a result of the budget cuts, local authorities were given the option of either providing these services themselves, or buying them from the county council. Realistically, it would have been impossible for any local authorities to provide the necessary level of expertise to make informed planning decisions, and it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to obtain the service commercially. Fortunately the majority of local authorities decided to buy in these services, albeit on short term contracts.

  The future remains very uncertain and it is this Society's opinion that the specialist expertise that has been available from the county council is essential to protect potentially rich (and often previously unknown) archaeological sites, as well as historic buildings. This range of knowledge cannot be adequately provided at local authority level.

11 January 2006

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