Bunnygate: My two pennies worth

I am going to start this post with some disclaimers. I am not a planning archaeologist. I don’t claim to be an expert in either planning law or developer funded archaeology. What I am is an archaeologist and geophysicist who wrote her PhD on peatland environments. You will shortly see why this is relevant. Shortly I’m also going to speak about the GeoSIG (geophysics Special Interest Group) at the IFA. I’m not an IFA member at the moment, partly because up to the instigation of the GeoSIG it was a bit hard for geophysicists to define themselves properly as members. I will be joining up shortly though as the recent debate has convinced me more than ever that we need to be organised and professional, and though the IFA has flaws, it’s what we have to work with and it is much better to try to work from within to improve things.

I’m happy to get into a discussion here: I know a lot of archaeologists and academics personally and as I’m going to be tweeting this post out, I know I’m not just waffling into the ether (I hope). What I won’t do is stray off into areas I know I’m not an expert in. I have a lot of colleagues and friends who  ARE experts on planning, law and heritage and I’m hoping they will wade in to any debates that get sparked off.

So, some history. Last Wednesday (June 23rd) the conservative lead councillor, one Alan Melton of the Fenland District Council announced at an award ceremony that “I can announce tonight, that from the 1st July. A requirement for an archaeological dig/survey will not be required. The requirement will no longer feature at pre-app. Or form part of the committee agenda.” He went on to talk about how he knew the ‘bunny huggers wouldn’t like it’ and said something about polar bears drifting down the Nene, somehow bringing climate change scepticism into the already baffling mix. The story was broken by local news site EDP24 the following day, and went on to helpfully publish a transcript of his speech here,which is the source of my above quote.

This caught the attention of some archaeologists, unsurprisingly. One wrote to him asking for some detailed response to questions about the legality of the decision got an email back stating ‘Long Live Eric Pickles’ (source). This was dutifully reported on by EDP24, and the story started to break on twitter (where as you all know I lavish a disproportionate amount of my attention).

A flurry of official and unofficial responses began, which are summed up in two excellent blog posts by @lidongni and @ruthFT. I linked to both of these over the last few days, but if you’ve not read them you should now please- I don’t want to duplicate their excellent work and I want to draw attention to these well thought out posts.

OK, back?  Right. There has also been a petition. If you’ve not signed it yet, you can do so here. I’ve linked to it before, but I’d urge you again to go and sign if you haven’t already.

Another offshoot has been a facebook group, which you can find here. Facebook is very odd about urls so if that doesn’t work, you can find the group by searching for its name ‘Oppose Plans To Scrap Archaeology In The Fens’. They are doing a really good job of collating documents, sharing ideas and organising individual responses such as writing letters to MP’s and councils.

I don’t need to explain to most of you that what Cllr Melton has proposed is illegal. We have laws and guidelines in place to protect Archaeology in England and Wales that have been worked out over a long period of time and for the large part, work well. Developers have had to pay for investigation and mitigation since the mid 1990’s. The Fens are an internationally important landscape that preserves material not found on driyland sites and as such gives important evidence for the past. Here is an excerpt from my PhD which tries to explain why these landscapes are so important to archaeologists:

Archaeologists have long been aware that peatland environments (along with other waterlogged deposits) are a rich source of information and artefacts simply not available from other, drier, contexts (Coles 1987, 12). The anaerobic nature of the peat means that organic materials are sometimes preserved in almost pristine condition, or at least as long as the environment is maintained. The problem is that most of these sites only come to light as they are being destroyed, as chance finds during engineering or extraction operations. These sites are largely invisible to conventional prospection techniques such as fieldwalking, aerial, photography, and topographical survey, especially in the lowlands.

The wealth of wetlands as an archaeological resource in the UK has been demonstrated by a number of surveys and overviews, largely in the form of four regional projects commissioned by English Heritage from 1973- 2000, the Somerset Levels Project, The Fenland Survey, The North West Wetlands Survey and the Humber Wetlands Project. These projects produced a wealth of individual publications and overviews, and lead to the production of a report on the state of the wetland archaeological resource, Monuments at Risk in England’s Wetlands (MAREW), and a strategy document explaining how English Heritage planned to tackle the problems facing these landscapes (Olivier & Van de Noort 2002; Van de Noort et al. 2002)

Peatland archaeological sites are under constant threat, from commercial peat extraction, development, desiccation, climate change and changes in agricultural practices. In the past, peat extraction has at least offered an opportunity to discover buried sites, for example during the Somerset Levels Project, but as commercial peat extraction has slowed the threat has become more insidious, with drainage for agriculture and development desiccating the sediments and destroying the archaeology without it ever being exposed for examination.

The archaeological resource is extensive; in England and Wales alone the Monuments at Risk in England’s Wetlands report quantified it as follows:

The identifiable archaeological resource of England’s wetlands is estimated at 13,400 monuments, including:

  • 1800 monuments in upland peatlands
  • 4200 monuments in lowland peatlands
  • 7400 monuments in alluviated lowlands

 (Van de Noort et al. 2002, 11)


The report then goes on to discuss the fact that in the last 50 years an estimated 2,930 wetlands sites have been totally destroyed and a further 10,450 are likely to have suffered damage, desiccation or partial destruction (Van de Noort et al. 2002, 23).

The Cambridge County Council (the overall authority in the area) have already stated there is no plan to start ignoring PPS5 (the relevant bit of planning guidance) but there are some really important questions outstanding.

First of all, we have yet to hear anything from the Fenland Council themselves. They really need to come out and clarify this issue.

Secondly, since this story first broke, archaeologists have been wondering if this is a sign of things to come. This deregulation and move towards commercial interests being given strongest weighting in planning seem to be core to the Tory agenda, and in particular to the ‘localism’ push. If the Fenland Council aren’t going to abandon PPS5, what are they planning on doing instead? Mr Melton made some very sweeping statements about how ‘delayed’ projects would get the go-ahead, that archaeology wouldn’t be considered by the planning committee and that we were all very welcome to come and do watching briefs as the footings were dug out. People with much more sense and experience than me have been pointing out the folly of this: emergency archaeological interventions- ‘rescue digs’ are far more disruptive to development, and ultimately far more costly, than a plan which has taken the need for archaeological mitigation in from the start. I wonder if perhaps the councillor has had some bitter, horrible experience in his time as a bricklayer that has led him to this grossly distorted view? Either way, archaeologists as a group need to get behind organisations like the Council for British Archaeology and engage with the consultation around the National Planning Policy Framework and ensure our voices are heard.

Yesterday the story hit the national press, Dr Mike Heyworth, director of the CBA spoke to Alan Melton on Radio4. You can listen to the segment here. And this is where my further questions start. First of all, why has Cllr Melton backpedalled from ‘No archaeology as of 01/07/11’ to ‘I was just starting a debate’? More worryingly, he seems massively ill informed. He seems to think that test trenching causing problems for builders… can anyone comment on this?

He seems to have watched the recent programme about Lidar being used to locate sites in Egypt and totally misunderstood it, talking about GPS. Someone on the facebook group has suggested that we need to put together some sort of information pack for local authorities, which are often made up of non-specialists, explaining planning law and the role of archaeology. I think this is a fantastic idea, but they should have experts on hand in the planning department, surely?

I’m left with a disturbing feeling that we’ve failed somewhere critical in our education of the public/politicians if this guy doesn’t know that we routinely use geophysics, remote sensing and other non-invasive methods in archaeological planning evaluations. We are arguably the world leaders in this! I know that one thing the GeoSig was concerned with was setting up training programmes for local planning officers, and curators so they could understand the role and limitations of geophysical surveys, and become more savvy in their commissioning. We need to do more of this! Geophysicists particularly need to engage with the rest of the discipline and take part in a more joined up approach. We need to publish our failures as well as our successes and talk to the archaeologists that excavate our sites and improve our models of interpretation. There is some excellent work going on at the moment towards this (such as the DART project) but it can’t happen fast enough. I hope my PhD helped a bit with this, and that my new project will do so too, albeit for very different landscapes.

Final question: Why has no-one sacked this guy yet, or at least reported him to some sort of standards committee? If I replied to a legitimate enquiry to my work email account with ‘Long Live Lord Renfrew’ I’d be sacked on the spot!

Sorry if it was a bit rambling and incoherent. I’ve been writing up data processing logs all day so my brain is mostly filled with how in hell to explain how a zero mean traverse is OK for gradiometer data but not for EM conductivity data to a group of excellent archaeologists with very little experience of geophysics. I am off to look at the wonderful T-shirts Digging the Dirt have designed. I’m rather taken with this one:

'Historic Leftie' T-shirt by Digging the Dirt


Coles, J, 1987. The case for wet archaeology. In: Coles, J & Lawson, A, (eds).  European Wetlands in Prehistory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Olivier, A & Van de Noort, R, 2002, English Heritage strategy for wetlands. London/Exeter, English Heritage/University of Exeter.

Van de Noort, R, Fletcher, W, Thomas, G, Carstairs, I & Patrick, D, 2002, Monuments at risk in England’s wetlands. London/ Exeter, English Heritage/ University of Exeter

16 thoughts on “Bunnygate: My two pennies worth

  1. Addendum: I missed out some great blog/local press responses. Here is a copy of the list the facebook group have posted to date:

    http://lettersfromlidongni.blogspot.com/2011/06/fenland-philistinism-and-archaeological.html Fenland philistinism and archaeological bunny-hugging (Letters from Li Dongni – Thursday 23rd June 2011)

    http://findsandfeatures.wordpress.com/2011/06/23/fenland-council-plan-to-scrap-all-pre-development-archaeological-assessment-roundup/ Fenland Council plan to scrap all pre-development archaeological assessment – roundup (Finds and Features – 23rd June 2011)
    http://www.diggingthedirt.com/2011/06/24/bunnygate-–-the-saga-continues/ Bunnygate – The Saga Continues! (digging the Dirt – 24th June 2011)

    http://janetedavis.wordpress.com/2011/06/24/fenland-bunny-huggers-and-polar-bears/ Fenland, bunny huggers and polar bears (Janet E Davis – The Blog – 24th June 2011)

    http://www.stevetierney.org/blog/ Balance, Revisited by Steve Tierney (Getting The Message Out – A Fenland Blog With A Conservative Flourish – 24th June 2011)

    http://www.diggingthedirt.com/2011/04/10/mersyside-archaeology-service/ Merseyside Archaeological Service (digging the Dirt – 10th April 2011)

    http://humanitiesmatter.com/?p=322 Heritage Professional or Bunny Hugger and Nimby? (Humanities Matter, The Campaign for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences – 23rd June 2011)

    http://liberalengland.blogspot.com/2011/06/alan-melton-tory-leader-of-fenland.html Alan Melton, Tory leader of Fenland District Council, wins Idiot of the Day (Liberal England – Monday 27th June 2011)

    http://www.diggingthedirt.com/2011/06/27/councillor-alan-melton-archaeological-clothing/ Councillor Alan Melton Archaeological Clothing! (digging the Dirt – Monday 27th June 2011)

    http://chatteris.shapeyourplace.org/2011/06/28/alan-melton-doesnt-value-fenland-archaeology-do-you/ Alan Melton doesn’t value Fenland archaeology: do you? (shapeyourplace.org, Join Chatteris and villages’ conversation! – 28th June 2011)

    NB this list was collated by the group members, not me!

  2. Interesting debate, well you can’t “sack” an elected councillor to start with, until the next election of course; and even then it may not turn out quite how you like. And a standards committee – who elected them? It seems to me this about power and the exercise thereof. If the “little people” in a locality said “pshaw to your archaeology, we want to build houses for our kiddies, and businesses to give them work?”; is the answer “Sorry little people we have a greater good; we need to dig holes for the dead past which is more important than the alive today, so stop complaining and move along as we have a whole establishment of academia and quangos to keep busy”…. or not…

    • Hi Ben 🙂

      I know we can’t sack him, and that elections are tricksy things. I’m just a bit flabbergasted that he can say that. As for the archaeology stopping people getting schools and homes, I don’t think this debate is about stopping development, just making sure that any damage or destruction of archaeology is mitigated against; either by preservation in-situ or as a last resort, recording by excavation. I don’t think the archaeological investigation needs to take up a significant chunk of the budget: we’ve got a system that for the most part works when archaeology is properly planned into the development process. There shouldn’t be any need for delays or massive costs. The delays and costs come when something of major importance is found late in the process (i.e. when the footings are being dug!) that wasn’t known about before. Decent planning should reduce the chance of this happening. My whole PhD was about how to make archaeological sites more detectable in these tricky environments, like the fens. We could go for a model whereby development and economic growth trump all, but I don’t think that would help affordable housing and schools; the ‘little people’ wouldn’t benefit much, AND we’d loose irreplaceable evidence about the past.

  3. The Egypt survey was conducted using a NASA satelite in an area of the globe which has a consistent daily temperature with little cloud cover, the geomorphology of land has vast areas of uninterrupted desert and is not developed. In short everything we are not in the UK. LIDAR is great but not wholly suitable to wetlands. Whilst I am far from a supporter of Cllr Melton his reference to the effects of trenching on a proposed development site can be correct. In some instances, depending on the underlying geology, trenching does effect the sub-structure of the soil resulting in the need for deeper foundations at extra cost. This is not a new revelation, it is common and accepted as a consequence of development in archaeologically sensitive areas.

    • Hi Andrew- I’m very aware of why the Lidar work in Egypt can’t really be compared with the UK which is one of the reasons his comments worried me. I also know that airborne remote sensing struggles, at the moment, to locate sites under peat and alluvium- my PhD was about archaeological prospection in peat and I looked at using near surface geophysics for site detection and delimination in these tricky landscapes. It’s difficult, but it can be done. I suspect that’s why trial trenching is employed in the fens, but I have no numbers to hand about how much more often it is used here than elsewhere in the country. I guess it is logical that on wet & sensitive ground trial trenching would lead to changes in foundation design, but this can surely be realised and planned in at a very early stage, and therefore properly costed? Architects, Engineers and Archaeologists could work together so that their plans compliment rather than hinder each other?

      This reinforces the argument that archaeologists need to be part of the planning consent process from the outset, rather than being called in in an emergency part-way through ground work. Emergency interventions are always going to be more costly and more disruptive than planned ones.

  4. If I can inject a little ideology into this, there are councillors of every hue up and down the country that would see such a move as genuinely populist, flogging it on the less red tape/do gooder interference angle. This is a sad fact of life and the only way to refute this is to show how ‘rescue’ archaeology is actually far more time consuming, disruptive and expensive- you will need solid evidence for this. It is utterly pointless in my view to try and mount any kind of defence of archaeology because he doesn’t care one way or the other, you need to destroy his premise and expose what he’s really about.
    I’m also very much in favour of the UK’s planning regime getting a much wider airing but I’m not sure that this particular debate is the place to do it.

    • Good points- is it OK for me to paraphrase them to the facebook group to see if someone can dig up some details about relative costs of rescue vs planned interventions? Regarding the planning thing- the National Planning Policy Framework is out to consultation this year at some point. The CBA and other archaeological organisations are working hard to engage with this process,

  5. Anyone can refer Councillor Melton to Fenland District council’s monitoring officer for an investigation into his conduct. http://www.fenland.gov.uk

    The County Council carry out the archeological planning function on behalf of the District council – another reason why Cllr Melton was not in a position to carry out what he said.

    • But would that be ethical? The European Convention on Human Rights is binding on public authorities, and protects freedom of expression on political issues and matters of public interest:

      Article 10 – Freedom of expression

      1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

      2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

      • I think it’s one thing for him to express his opinions- I don’t have a problem with him making the speech, for example. I’m more worried about the utter lack of professionalism in his replies. He’s a an elected public servant and in my opinion that means having a certain level of professionalism when communicating with people in the capacity of his office. If I accosted him about this in the pub one evening, he’d be well within his rights to tell me to bugger off, but can you imagine anyone getting away with that at work?

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