The impact of archaeology on property development (UK)

Whilst costly and carrying the potential for significant disruption, preservation of our archaeological heritage is considered nationally important and is now protected by legislation.

The impact of archaeology on property development (UK)

Until relatively recently, there was little control in England over development in respect to the preservation of archaeology and historic buildings. Many important sites were lost and in 1989 the threatened destruction of the remains of the Elizabethan Rose Theatre in London caused a public outcry that led to the excavation of the site, not legislation.

The response from English Heritage and the Government was the introduction in 1990 of Planning Policy Guideline (PPG) 16 to cover the protection of archaeological sites, and PPG 15 for the preservation of Conservation Areas and Historic Buildings. These were combined and superseded in 2010 by Planning Policy Statement 5: Planning for the Historic Environment to provide a more robust planning framework.

Whilst costly and carrying the potential for significant disruption, preservation of our archaeological heritage is considered nationally important and is now protected by legislation.

The Practicalities

The need to dig new foundations, basements, services trenches and so forth go hand in hand with construction projects, which brings with it the possibility of discovering archaeological remains. Like most disciplines, archaeology begins investigations at a high level and drills down into the detail as needed. The key is to establish the likelihood of the need for further work at an early stage so that it is built into the cost and programme for the project. The potential to ‘avoid’ the risk through design solutions within a site of known sensitivity should also be explored.

The first step, which is often a planning requirement, is to commission a desktop study. This will assess the history of the site and area, identify any known excavations nearby or sites of importance and assess the potential for archaeology on a site. Next steps may include further desktop review or site investigations. The overriding philosophy of archaeology is to identify, record and conserve rather than to dig and destroy a site. Escalating measures which may be recommended include:

  • Geophysical surveying – can be used on an open site to map where potential buildings and other man made features may be present.
  • Watching brief – a method statement for excavations required by the development will be developed in conjunction with the archaeologist for areas considered as sensitive. The archaeologist will attend the site to view the works in progress at select times in the construction programme. Works will be stopped if archaeological remains are discovered.
  • Trial pits – targeted areas in which ‘mini’ excavations are conducted to establish whether the perceived potential for archaeology can be confirmed.
  • Excavation – if a site considered of archaeological importance has been identified and will be destroyed by the development, a full excavation is required. No development will take place or continue until the dig is completed to the satisfaction of the archaeologists. The discovery of human remains on a site will in turn temporarily suspend archaeological works until the police have confirmed that it is not a modern victim.
  • Remains must be treated with dignity, and those exhumed from religious sites such as a graveyard, will need to be reinterred with due protocol. A degree of caution is also needed where death has been caused by disease (for example plague victims) as contagions can still be live even after hundreds of years.

Conclusion

Whilst costly and carrying the potential for significant disruption, preservation of our archaeological heritage is considered nationally important and is now protected by legislation. It is a criminal offence to destroy a site and although we can be put under pressure on programme and cost, clients need to be advised accordingly. Attitudes are changing, and some developments such as Crossrail have turned the discovery of archaeology into a positive media story. Returning to the Rose Theatre, visitors to Park Street, Bankside can now enjoy the conserved remains from a lit viewing platform!