NPPF – have Scotland got the heritage protection system right?

Two planning documents of significance to archaeologists have recently been published.

In England, the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was released on the 25th July. This promises “A new, simpler framework for the planning system that safeguards the environment while meeting the need for sustainable growth”, and slims down over 1000 pages of cumbersome planning legislation and guidance brought in by previous Governments, into a single document only 52 pages long. The Historic Environment gets 3 of these pages, tucked away at the back just before the glossary.

In Scotland, Planning Advice Note 2 “Planning and Archaeology” was published two days later on the 27th July. According to the Scottish Government’s website it “..reflects 17 years of accumulated changes in the policy context, the statutory planning system, the key stakeholders and in archaeological practices. Like its 1994 predecessor (PAN 42) it provides advice to planning authorities and developers on dealing with archaeological remains. But it does so with a fresh emphasis which is proportionate to the relative value of the remains and of the developments under consideration.

The timing is not really important, but it is happily coincidental, as the relative content of the two in archaeological terms allows for interesting comparison.

The NPPF draws heavily on the language of PPS5, which it will supersede. It draws the entirety of the historic environment under one umbrella, continues the dreadfully nebulous “heritage assets” terminology so beloved of the previous document, and perpetuates the difficult concept of “significance”, which is currently perplexing historic environment practitioners as they attempt to squeeze such a wide-ranging and subjective notion into a planning system that deals far more securely with measurable processes. This is a sadly missed opportunity to create clarity where currently there is confusion. The NPPF also eschews other opportunities to promote stability of cohesive decision-making: woolly statements regarding “substantial harm”, “loss of significance”, and “advance understanding” survive from the PPS, when the terms “damage”, “destruction of evidence” and “professional recording” would be infinitely preferable.

Compare then, with PAN2, a succinct 13 pages dealing with archaeology alone. This harks back to the terminology of its predecessor PAN42, and the English version PPG16. Archaeology, is maintained not only as an entity separated from other elements of the historic environment (as it should be) – but also as a “finite and non-renewable resource”. A touch of nostalgia as surely this is an outdated concept in the new world of establishing significance – as is the preference for preservation in-situ? Or maybe these are actually simple and easy to understand professional statements that have been widely accepted. There is more to note: PAN2 indicates that the weight given to archaeological features in determining planning applications will depend on a number of factors, including relative rarity, completeness, cultural and/or historical associations, the value placed on it locally its potential for education if left in-situ and its potential tourism value. A cynic might suggest that this is the very definition of “significance” that the NPPF and PPS5 before it deliberately shied away from: has common sense and clarity been sacrificed in the NPPF for the sake of a lower word count?

It is not simply in language terms that PAN2 offers more coherent sense. According to Scottish archaeological planning policy, it is “…essential that every planning authority has access to a Sites and Monuments Record/Historic Environment Record…, curated by a professional archaeologist on behalf of the local authority or a dedicated heritage body.”. This statement alone should provide a more stable platform for HER services to be afforded better protection from future programmes of local authority cuts. The NPPF however is virtually silent on the matter of SMRs/HERs – simply maintaining that they should be consulted by planning applicants when they need to supply details of the “significance” of any “heritage assets” their development might affect. It seems that whilst safeguarding the environment might ostensibly be a key concept in the NPPF, safeguarding the Historic Environment Records of the country will not be: as now, they and their staff will remain under constant threat of the usual ongoing rounds of ill-considered, short-term and short-sighted local authority posturing on efficiency.

The NPPF does at least contain a provision indicating that local authorities should set out their own strategies for the conservation of the historic environment, so on a local level more robust measures than the NPPF can be introduced into planning policy – presuming of course there is a local HER and conservation advice service surviving to devise them. And PAN2 is by no means a perfect expression of how archaeology should be dealt with in the planning process: still lacking is a requirement for prospecting for the presence of archaeological remains where no work has previously been carried out for example, or a recognition of the need for stable, sufficiently-resourced and independent historic environment advice services. However what it does do is create a clearly defined sense of purpose and direction in archaeological decision-making, where the NPPF falls short and will be open to subjectivity and partiality. It may be vaguely trendy at the moment to debate esoteric concepts of advancing understanding, but this cuts little ice – or indeed meets with little sympathy as an idea – with the wider and more business orientated development community. Whilst it is of course highly desirable to have a clear and understandable planning process, and Rescue agrees that over 1000 pages of competing planning legislation is far too much to handle for most developers, condensing the entire planning protection regime for the historic environment into three poorly-expressed pages is not appropriate. Central heritage legislation in England is about to suffer “substantial harm and loss of significance” if the draft NPPF remains as it is. The baby is about to be thrown out with the bathwater, and not for the first time those of us south of the border will be looking enviously northwards as it seems like the Scottish Government has got something more right than the English have managed.

 

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