Thursday, 23 June 2011

Fenland philistinism and archaeological bunny-hugging

Democracy is a funny thing.  We seem to be fighting a few wars at the moment to get other countries to sign up for it.  China is continually bashed because it doesn’t want it.  But sometimes there comes along a story that makes you wonder ‘do we really want it?’  Because it seems that sometimes people can elect leaders who are, quite frankly, barbarians.

Take, as an example, a speech given the other day by Alan Melton, the leader of the Fenland District Council (basically the boggy bit between Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire).  He was speaking at a Building and Design Awards ceremony (read the local newspaper article here), and set out his plans to boost the local economy by taking away elements of the planning process to make new developments easier.  All well and good, you might be thinking - getting rid of the red tape and bureaucracy.  However, his proposals are, simply, to remove pesky and sometimes expensive inconveniences like the historic environment and the archaeological record.

According to Mr Melton, it is an outrage that building projects should have to spend thousands of pounds having to wait while an archaeologist digs holes in the ground, when more money could be made by just bulldozing through it all and letting the archaeologists inspect it ‘when the footings are being dug out.’  A recipe for learning more about our shared history?  No.  A recipe for letting a few of Mr Melton’s mates get a bit richer?  Absolutely.

An insidious example was provided to support his argument.  Apparently an excavation in advance of a college development cost £10,000 – money which Mr Melton argued would have been better spent on schools and teachers.  But let’s just think about that for a second.  Do developers fund the education service in the fens?  No, of course they don’t.  If every developer was allowed to merrily destroy the archaeological record when building their housing estate, not one extra teacher would be provided for local children.  Rather, the lack of historical information available to local schools would in fact damage the education of local children, while developers get to make even more profit.  I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like stealing from the children rather than giving them something.

Of course, Mr Melton’s background rather reveals the source of his bias against culture.  He is a bricklayer, and therefore seems to see anything that stops someone like him making money as a bad thing.  He even mentions unspecified ‘experiences he endured during his former life’ which seem to have twisted his opinions.  Sadly, he has been elected by the good people of the Fens into a position where he can enforce his uncultured views on the rest of us.

To cap it all, what name does he give to people like us who care about the past?  ‘Bunny-huggers’!  As if to suggest that people interested in preserving the past (and presumably by extension the natural environment too), are akin to some stereotypical hippy commune, preaching about world peace and thinking that the soil has feelings.  Rubbish – the systematic study of the history of this country has been carried out for centuries, and Mr Melton, in his desperate desire for economic regeneration, may like to reflect on how much money tourism and heritage bring to the economy of this country.

But of course Mr Melton hasn’t thought about that, because he isn’t really sure what he’s talking about at all.  For one thing, he seems to be confusing the historic environment with global warming, with his comment that ‘I don’t believe the Polar Bears will be floating down the Nene in my life time or indeed my children’s.’  No, Mr Melton, neither do I, but I don’t think that it’s an excuse for raping the archaeological heritage of your district.  I don’t think that camels will be wandering the streets either, but that isn’t a good reason to start shooting endagered birds.  The two things are completely and utterly unrelated.

Modern archaeology is based on the principle of 'the polluter pays'.  A simple concept - if you are going to profit from the destruction of the environment, then you should pay to have it recorded or studied before that destruction.  Mr Melton would have the archaeological record laid bare at the mercy of any greedy capitalists to plunder for personal profit.  That cannot be allowed to happen in any society that calls itself civilised.

People of the fenland please speak out.  Tell this philistine (whom you elected to serve your interests) that what he is doing is irreversibly destroying your heritage purely so a few of his friends in the building sector can get a little bit richer.  If that is what true democracy is, then give me a benign dictatorship any day.

Addendum 24 June 2011

As you may imagine, I was far from the only archaeologist to be enraged and flabbergasted by the above story.  Various professional bodies, such as the Council for British Archaeology and the Institute for Archaeologists have officially expressed their concern, and archaeologists on the British Archaeology mailing list have been vocal in their condemnation.

Mr Melton, however, seems to actually be rather proud of his boorishness.  In a follow-up newspaper article, an email of his to Conservative colleagues is quoted; ‘I don’t tweet, but what a wonderful day … to be attacked by bunny huggers, historic lefties and the vested interested professional classes. Eric Pickles will be extremely proud of me.’

So, eloquent proof indeed that arrogant local Tory politicians are more interested in lickspittle sycophancy with the top brass than with doing what is right for their community and local heritage.  I hope everyone that voted for them at the last election is now enjoying reaping what they have sown.  Hopefully the important archaeological heritage of the fens isn’t fated to pay the price.


  1. Fenland is not "boggy" nor is it "between Lincs and Cambs" but is actually in Cambridgeshire.

    You are a museum curator, eh? Can you say: "vested Interest?"

  2. I should apologise if my description of the fens caused offence. I was referring to the topographical fenland as the large, low-lying wetland area around the Wash, and covering areas in the counties of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk rather than to the specific political boundary of the Fenland District Council - many of my overseas readers may not have a clue what the English fens are. The boggy reference was intended to be tongue-in-cheek - the fens are a starkly beautiful part of the country.

    As for me having a vested interest, that's an interesting point. As someone employed to engage with archaeology, and to both care for it and stimulate public interest in it, then, yes, I'm definitely 'within the system'. I also care passionately that a finite and important resource is managed as well as can be. That includes making sure that it isn't exploited for individual financial gain - which is the whole purpose of the planning guidance Mr Melton intends to ignore.

    As to whether I can be said to have a 'vested' interest, that's more debatable. As a museum curator, I have a responsibility to administrate, preserve and provide public and academic access to the products (the artefacts and the documents) produced by archaeological fieldwork. However, even if all new archaeological fieldwork were to be outlawed tomorrow, the role of the museums would still be required. Not to mention that the collections of the museum stretch vastly beyond just archaeological fieldwork archives. As I'm not a commercial field archaeologist, my livelihood is therefore in no way directly affected by the continuation or not of commercially funded archaeology in the fens.

    Ultimately though, our archaeological and cultural heritage belongs to everyone, not just professional archaeologists and museum curators. Every single person in the country (and particularly those of the fens) should be seen as having a 'vested interest' in this issue.

    Stimulating the economy *is* important. Getting as many businesses as possible making money and employing people *is* important. But there are limits to what should be done to achieve those goals. Our standing and buried cultural heritage should not be made casualties of uncontrolled development, just as our rivers and forests shouldn't be.

    The planning process is essentially a mitigation. A system by which the needs of the developer and the archaeological resource can be considered and judged. Simply condemning one side of the debate into oblivion with one fell swoop, as opposed to attempting to tweak the balance, is a shocking act. It flies in the face of decades of national debate, policy and guidance and seems to have been carried out without public or professional consultation. That is why Mr Melton's comments have caused such vitriol.