If a person has a heart attack, or suffers from lung disease, a doctor’s advice can be sought and there are drugs available that can treat these conditions, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes, the treatments are almost as harsh as the disease and a person might still die from these conditions. But: if the medical profession researches the working of the heart and lungs and can then offer advice about healthy diets, not smoking and exercise, and through genetic knowledge identify those people more at risk of heart attacks and lung diseases, perhaps the person could not only be spared the heart attack or lung disease in the first place, but would be healthier in the future. More people surviving, fewer invasive and less drastic treatments required, fewer life-threatening conditions. Is this not a more sensible approach? Is this not cheaper in the long run?
The principle is surely similar for large complex historic buildings. Any conservation officer will know that in order to properly manage a structure you need to know how it’s put together. Decisions about even minor matters such as where the use of modern paints is acceptable and where they will cause damp build-up in the walls, will depend upon detailed knowledge of the structure. We need to understand how buildings develop and grow over time, how the various elements of the structure work and interact, identify areas of concern, highlight areas of weakness, show where there might be fabrics or finishes that aren’t compatible with one another, find the hidden voids and catalogue the structural materials. Having an archaeological survey of an historic building provides all this data and more – it’s like having a condition assessment and a dedicated historic analysis together. How would this information not be beneficial to the management, conservation and preservation of the site in the future?
The fact that the opportunity to conduct such a survey is apparently going to be denied at the Palace of Westminster during the forthcoming programme of repairs and renovations is not simply a dereliction of duty on the part of our MPs: it is a decision that is almost certainly going to hasten the repeat dereliction of the building itself in the future. The press has raised issue over the costs of the programme and the archaeological survey has been touted by some MPs as an unnecessary addition to this cost. It is not: it is an integral part of how this programme of repairs should be properly conducted. Without it, the country will simply be having an identical debate, about the same building, requiring a similar enormous programme of repairs, in 80-100 years’ time. Is that really what we want? The future value of a comprehensive archaeological survey of the Palace of Westminster would make any financial cost for it today negligible. This isn’t an academic luxury: it’s an investment for the future that will provide returns many times over.