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Delivering 300,000 new homes each year: solving archaeological challenges

Ensuring the expedient delivery of the UK’s much needed homes: Simon Mortimer, Deputy Operational Director for Heritage, discusses the top archaeological challenges facing developers and how to overcome them.

27 January 2020 | 4 min read
Simon Mortimer

UK

The housing crisis facing the UK has long topped the political agenda with successive governments under increasing pressure to deliver new and affordable homes. This government’s commitment stands at building one million homes over this parliament; working toward a target of 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s.

Estimates on current delivery or missed targets vary, however McBains’ survey of more than 400 housebuilding companies found that around half of respondents thought slow planning permission (among other reasons) would make it difficult for the government to meet its target.

Archaeology and built heritage consultants can play an integral role to unlock some of the challenges; supporting developers through the planning process while putting modern development in appropriate context and ensuring links to past cultures are not lost. An understanding of heritage constraints / implications in the early stages can help to avoid costly delays as the project progresses. Making complex easy, Simon shares some of the top archaeological challenges developers can face and how to resolve them.

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Managing the development threat to nationally important sites

Delivering the homes needed will require resolving conflict with the need to preserve heritage assets. Although only a relatively small number of buildings and archaeological sites have statutory protection (as Listed Buildings, Scheduled Monuments, Conservation Areas etc.) they weigh heavily in the planning balance. Over recent years there has been a significant increase in the range of sites that are nationally designated. While some may be obvious (prehistoric earthworks and churches), others such as military sites and 1960s Brutalist structures can be a surprise. Developments that adversely impact these are unlikely to be consented unless the needs case is equivalently strong i.e. of national importance. It has therefore never been more important to get an early ‘heritage health check’ of any proposed scheme to identify potential ‘show-stoppers’ as early in the process as possible.

 

Ensuring that archaeological costs do not impact on viability of planning applications

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is focused on a need to assess and establish the ‘significance’ of sites to make informed planning decisions. That is open to a degree of interpretation with some Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) intent on understanding each anomaly on a geophysical survey and some taking more of a broad-brush approach. This tension can be exacerbated where there is the requirement to agree the baseline surveys with the LPA for an Environmental Impact Assessment. One answer to this would be to agree phasing of archaeological evaluation with a targeted phase upfront in support of applications and a conditioned phase before development of the final mitigation strategy – especially on larger schemes.

 

Understanding archaeological risks before purchasing a site

The media is full of reports of archaeological discoveries delaying development. Our role as heritage consultants is to try to ensure that this doesn’t happen. Dealing with complex geology, chemical contamination and archaeology amongst other things has the potential to significantly increase costs and time spent on site – with the very real potential to impact on viability. The solution is to ensure that proper verifiable surveys are carried out pre-purchase. These cannot eliminate risk entirely but they should reduce it significantly. Graves in particular are almost impossible to find using geophysics and can be difficult to find in trenching without anomalies to target. You can fit a significant number of burials and cremations into a very small area – so costs for very small areas can increase exponentially. Good baseline surveys can reduce the risks to acceptable levels.

 

Under-resourced Local Planning Authorities

Austerity related cuts to Local Authority budgets have left numerous Authorities making their archaeological and built heritage advisors redundant or not seeking to fill vacant positions. Where positions are filled there is a noticeable trend for Conservation Officers to be encouraged to take on Planning Archaeologist roles and vice versa. This can slow the progress of applications and leave consents vulnerable to Judicial Review. As archaeological consultants, we can help to tread a balance to ensure that works undertaken in support of applications are reasonable and proportionate – but also robust.

 

 

With extensive experience of working on sites across the UK, we provide pragmatic solutions to help our clients achieve planning consent, manage historic environment constraints and discharge relevant planning conditions. Get in touch with the team for advice on your development.

 

As archaeologists we play a key role in delivering the UK’s much needed homes by supporting developers through the planning process

Simon Mortimer

Deputy Operations Director - Heritage