The current economic situation in the UK is difficult and, according to the Government, is likely to remain so for some considerable time. The reasons behind this situation are of course numerous and complicated, principally it seems with the blame coalescing around a combination of Brexit, the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, and the ongoing war in Ukraine. There are no doubt other more subtle contributors as well, creating a perfect storm of economic turmoil.
Whatever the causes, the overriding narrative regarding the current situation has largely focussed on the effects on the individual or small household: the rising cost of food, spiralling mortgage fees, the price of energy and fuel, proliferation of foodbanks, wages pressure and industrial action. The list goes on. Discussions in and around the profession recently have suggested that this crisis isn’t a heritage issue, but like all things, the historic environment is intertwined with the fabric of our society in an inextricable way, so when economic pressures start to bite there are clear and inevitable impacts on heritage. But how do we record these? And what should we do about it?
The first thing to do when addressing any problem is to gather evidence. So for a couple of examples:
A southern county is reporting that pressure on local authority budgets has resulted in the recent total withdrawal of museums’ acquisition funds. You might grudgingly conclude that acquiring Treasure items offered for institutional acquisition following valuation would be a costly business that maybe ought to be paused in straightened circumstances, but apart from a few headline cases Treasure acquisition is generally not a prohibitively expensive business and many finds can be acquired for public benefit for a few hundred pounds. Rescue has received information indicating that, following the withdrawal of funding, at least one object valued at under £50 has had to be returned to its finder and has disappeared into the open market.
Elsewhere, reports have reached us of developers exerting pressure on planning officers in attempts to circumvent planning requirements for post-excavation analytical work and reporting. This is a common occurrence during recessions and is particularly worthy of caution when applications are submitted by charitable organisations. Incidentally, Rescue’s planning consultant has advised using modular planning conditions which specify post excavation works as a separate requirement to try and anticipate this and cut it off at source – there is a useful example condition to take as a model in Historic England’s Good Practice Advice Note 2: Managing significance in Decision-Taking, which can be found online.
On the plus side, as a direct response to the impacts on staff, quite a number of commercial archaeological units have quickly responded to the current circumstances by providing rapid wage uplifts and/or one-off hardship payments. Whilst this is to be applauded it does suggest an inherent recognition within the commercial sector that wages are unsustainably low, something which they have clearly benefitted from for a number of years. It’s a pity it has taken a multi-pronged attack on the cost of living for something to be done to correct this, but there needs to be more; a reassessment of the value of commercial sector staff is surely long overdue.
We’d like to hear more. Do you know of examples of the direct impact of the economic squeeze affecting the historic environment? Let Rescue know. Only through collecting evidence and working together can we look to prevent unwitting (or otherwise) damage to our heritage sites, resources and institutions, and ensure that our past is cared for and sustained into the future.