S/he Who Pays the Piper....

Archaeology and the Polluter Pays Principle.

Paul Graves-Brown

To destroy archaeological remains is a form of pollution....

....This is not a matter of personal opinion, but government policy. For example, This Common Inheritance (Third Annual Report), the Tory policy White Paper (1992) on environmental protection, claims PPG 16 as an achievement. "Developer funding" is the archaeological version of the Polluter Pays Principle. This article is a critique of current policies and more importantly an attempt to propose alternatives. With a general election forthcoming, now is a good time to be asking for a better deal for our culture! (see endnote 1)

The Polluter Pays Principle originated in the 1970s (OECD 1975). Although sceptical of market mechanisms as a principle, I have no problem with the idea that industry should pay the true costs of its methods of production (see Friends of the Earth 1994). This includes the building industry, road builders, civil engineers and the mining industry. But what of the current situation where polluters are not only left to decide who shall monitor their acts of pollution, but also much or how little of the land to pollute? This is the substance of current practice in archaeology.

Archaeology is an environmental issue. The record of human history is a non-renewable resource, like oil or coal. The destruction of archaeology by excavation is thus not like control of emissions; the pollution comes from the process of destruction, effectively the degradation of the quality of our lives through the consumption of our past (much as burning coal is the consumption of another bit of the past). One difference, however, is that the cultural "resource" (!) is not as uniform as petrol or gas. Its quality and importance are negotiable and disputable.

The situation of archaeology is not unique. In other areas, industries seek to buy "rights to pollute" (Select Committee of the House of Lords 1983). They may not be free to dump toxics in rivers (although few prosecutions have ever taken place), but where "taxes" have been imposed on dirty coal fired electricity generators in the US, for example, they have simply bought pollution "quotas" from other, cleaner generators. According to the House of Lords report, "to allow polluters to buy 'rights to pollute' is to give them property rights over air and water. This attitude is resented by some sections of the public, who do not believe that protection of the environment should be entrusted to market mechanisms." Does not the current situation allow developers to buy rights over our past?

The problem is one of "management" (although 'managing the archaeological record' often seems to mean 'managing its destruction'). Who shall decide what is to be excavated, when, how and by whom? At present, these decisions lie with the developer. There are so called "curatorial archaeologists", but most are under the direction of county planning departments and are funded by local and national government. Where there is a planning "gain" in a development, money for a road or a sports centre, an authority may choose to disregard the calls of cultural heritage. Equally, English Heritage, Cadw and Historic Scotland are at the call of Secretaries of State. Maybe rightly so, but it then is the case that governments may choose to disregard an Iron Age cemetery when building a road or permitting the construction of yet another supermarket. Whilst English Heritage and others have devised criteria for the preservation of archaeological sites period, rarity, documentation, group value, survival/condition, fragility, diversity or potential what actually drives decisions as often as not is MONEY.

Under present Planning Guidance, decisions are measured against a presumption that important archaeological remains will be preserved in situ. This principle, like that of polluter pays, has its drawbacks because preservation saves developers money. Find a plot to build on. There's an archaeological site 1.5m below the surface? No problem. Put a concrete raft over the top of it and preserve it in situ! This is nonsense, for as Martin Biddle (1994) has pointed out, no one is going to come back to dig through those concrete foundations, and in any case, for whom is it being preserved? Chances are that the site will be damaged during the process anyway - who knows what site engineers will do once the archaeologists have gone away? Yet again it is a question of who decides, and for whom? What benefit accrues to the community by burying Roman buildings for some indefinite future? The only beneficiary is the developer who avoids costly excavation and post-excavation. To my knowledge, no development has ever been stopped because of "nationally" important archaeological remains (see Graves-Brown 1997). Developments are simply redesigned to "mitigate" their impact.

What is to be done?

In its 1983 report, the House of Lords Select Committee suggested that a form of "redistributive" system could be considered as a means of pollution control. I suggest that this is what is needed in archaeology a development tax payable irrespective of archaeology on site. Such a tax might appeal to developers, giving them a predictable cost, rather than having to write a blank cheque. The proceeds of such a tax need to pass to an independent archaeological authority/authorities, whose decisions would be separated as far as possible from the objectives of governments local and national.

We would then have the basis upon which to make decisions as to whether developments should be allowed. Decisions that, in line with Local Agenda 21 (derived from the Rio Summit and signed up to by our government; Local Government Managment Board 1994), would involve the community at large in consultation. Archaeologists would be in a position to decide whether or not to preserve archaeology, and by preservation we would not mean "under 2 metres of concrete". Finally, if we are to have contracting in archaeology, let if be a competition on QUALITY and not on PRICE. Competition, it is estimated, currently wastes at least stlg3 000 000 year in unsuccessful tenders money that could be spent on doing good archaeology! (See endnote 2)

In response to such a suggestion of tighter development control, I am sure there will be those in field units who will predict job losses. But as in the case of all pollution control issues (Friends of the Earth 1994) this is not true. In all economies we are seeing an increase in GNP but not in employment (see Friends of the Earth 1994: Figure 1 p 13). Contracting means cheap tenders, rushed excavations, skimped post-ex and less involvement by specialists. It means that museums are left with collections and archives they cannot store or afford to display. In this climate, employment is unstable and short term, certainly not the kind of conditions preferred by the IFA code of conduct! (See IFA Code of Conduct Rule 1.9 in the IFA Yearbook 1996.) By contrast, a proper strategy for archaeology, a funded strategy, would create more jobs, and more stable jobs. Rather than endless assessments involving bits of keyhole archaeology to produce many useless and unco-ordinated snippets of information, expenditure could be channelled to permit proper research objectives, and include full excavations that actually resolved archaeological sites, not simply stopping dead at the edge of a development an agenda driven by archaeological concerns and not just the financial objectives of developers.

The current (and hopefully soon late) Tory government is notorious for having no strategy in any field. They have no integrated transport strategy, no energy strategy, no overall strategy for food safety or public health. Rather than planned objectives, their actions are opportunistic, influenced by donations to Central Office or temporary public concerns. The situation of archaeology reflects this lack of strategic objectives that the market will decide becomes all too obviously absurd when we consider the research objectives of archaeology. What market? The public are never consulted, the developers are the clients and what possible reason is there for them to decide on what should or should not be excavated?

The market means the he or she who pays the piper will, despite our best intentions, always call the tune. At present the house builders, road constructors and mineral extractors are deciding the future of British archaeology. The forthcoming election is an opportunity for us to press the politicians that this must stop.

Endnote 1

I do mean our culture here and not "heritage". Like Barbara Bender, I hate the word "heritage" and I'm not just interested in archaeologist's interests but those of every citizen i.e. the way that archaeology is done should be of importance to everyone.

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Endnote 2

Money spent on putting together unsuccessful tenders is, by its nature, wasted. Money could be spent on doing archaeology and here I suppose I am expressing the hope that such work would be good, whatever good is! Once we get the structure right, we can then start to argue about what is good/bad, proper/not proper.

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Thanks go to Davydd Thomas, Eric Evans and Roy Jones.


Biddle, M. 1994. What future for British Archaeology? (Oxbow Lecture 1). Oxford: Oxbow

Conservative Party White Paper on Environmental Protection. 1992. This Common Inheritance (Third Annual Report). HMSO: London

Friends of the Earth. 1994. Working Future? Jobs and the Environment. London: Friends of the Earth

Graves-Brown, P.M. 1997. No Future for the Past? What do we preserve and who decides? Urban Nature.

House of Lords. 1983. The Polluter Pays Principle. Select Committee on the European Communities. London: HMSO

Local Government Management Board. 1994. Community Participation in Local Agenda 21. Local Agenda 21 Roundtable Guidance pamphlet no.1. Luton: Local Government Management Board.

OECD. 1975. The Polluter Pays Principle: Definition, analysis, implementation. Paris: OECD.

About the author:

Paul Graves-Brown works for a Welsh archaeological trust and has worked in museums and academia. His publications include an edited book (with Sian Jones) on cultural identity. He is editing another work on Modern Material Culture, campaigning on opencast and transport for Friends of the Earth and thinking about writing *the* archaeological novel!

Paul Graves-Brown 1997


assemblage 1997