Spotlight turns on Fenland as council leader Melton’s ‘bunny huggers’ jibes prompt a national storm

COUNCIL leader Alan Melton has received a “plethora of insults” from archaeologists after announcing a plan to ease archaeological surveys on new developments in the Fens.

Cllr Melton, leader of Fenland District Council, also thrust himself into the national spotlight this week by declaring “the bunny huggers won’t like” his proposals during a speech at the Cambs Times/Wisbech Standard/Fenland Council Building and Design Awards in Wisbech last week.

Both have sparked outrage amongst archaeologists across the country with many describing his plan as “shocking and disastrous”.

But defending his plan, Cllr Melton has said: “To carry out the work is a long and protracted thing to do [and] it’s also a disruption to the site itself.

“When you have 10 or up to 20 people suddenly descend on a site and start digging all over it has serious implications for the building methodology which follows.

“My argument is that there is a better way of doing it. When you are digging out footings on a building site, there is ample opportunity to inspect the site at that time rather than going in for a double dig.”

He said he has been told he should regret making the “bunny huggers” comment and continued: “If it has caused offence to some people then I apologise.

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“However, there is no excuse for the plethora of e-mails and insults that I’ve had thrown at me from archaeological profession.

“This is not constructive because I just want to get a debate going about the necessity of this operation and the costs involved and the fact it delays so many significant construction projects.”

Developers in the Fens have complained bitterly for years over the soaring costs of archaeological surveys and Mr Melton said these would no longer form part of any committee agenda.

He pointed to a recent example where tens of thousands of pounds was spent on excavations at the Neale Wade Community College, March, which he claims was “money wasted, money that could have been spent on more classrooms or teachers”.

He continued: “People have this idea that I’m dead against heritage but I am not. I am just looking at how cost effective it is because these surveys can drag on and on and we, the council taxpayers, have to pay for all of this.

“In this country we have a severe shortage of homes and we need to get on with building homes.

“There are plenty of builders out there on the dole when they could be in work and that’s why I’m saying we need to look at this.

“All I wanted to do was get a proper debate going and it I have achieved that with my comments then I think that’s a good thing.”

However, archaeologist Mike Hayworth, director at the council for British Archaeology, has hit back at the council leader claiming what is being proposed is “illegal”.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4, he added: “It would also be very costly and damaging for local rate payers and developers and disastrous for our understanding of the internationally significant archaeology of the Fens.

“I don’t see the point [he is making] because archaeology is not in opposition to economic growth and development.

“Archaeologists work very closely and very effectively with developers as part of carefully managed and very professional programme of work that’s always put in place.

“The key to this is always early discussion and early intervention and the truth of the matter is that archaeological work is programmed well in advance of building work.

“There is very rarely little disruption to building work except when on very infrequent occasions exceptional finds occur during the course of development and there are processes in place to manage those conversations for the best public interest.”

The Archaeology Forum and the Institute for Archaeologists have both released statements condemning Mr Melton’s comments.

The forum said the archaeology of the Fens was of “national and international importance”.

“The fragile equilibrium that maintains the exceptionally preserved sites of the Fens’ prehistoric and early communities is vulnerable to uncontrolled development,” it added.

“Current planning policy works well to ensure that the most important sites are managed in a way that protects them while still allowing new development to take place.”

The statement by the 3,000-strong Institute for Archaeologists added: “Alleged comments regarding the proposed abandonment of archaeological survey are particularly concerning and IfA will be contacting the council to ascertain the facts of the matter and to seek reassurance that existing historic environment planning policy and legislation will continue to be upheld.”

Thirty-two leading archaeologists, lead by Christopher Evans, executive director of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit at Cambridge University, have also signed a letter of protest against the plan.

The letter read: “If Fenland District Council proceed with these plans, not only will it find itself contravening national planning guidelines and existing cultural and heritage statute and case law, it is likely any development will be open to legal challenges that will involve the council in major financial costs and cause prospective developers serious delays, if not worse.”

The letter adds: “Of certain international significance within the Fenland district are the Roman town at Stonea - excavated by the British Museum, 1980-85 - and the superbly preserved, 3000 year-old timber-platform settlement recently discovered in quarries at Must Farm, Whittlesey.

“Effectively a ‘prehistoric Pompeii’ with its wood, textiles and metalwork all preserved the Must Farm site was only found through developer-funded fieldwork and now ranks amongst the most important later prehistoric sites in Europe.

“It is, however, only one of a number of major archaeological sites that have been discovered within the district over the last decade.

“To list but a few, uniquely waterlogged Bronze Age landscapes have been excavated at both Thorney and March, and a number of important Iron Age and Roman settlements and specialist salt-production sites have also been investigated in advance of development.

“If, under councillor Melton’s guidance, the council continues to push through with this irresponsible policy change, it amounts to saying that its local heritage is of no consequence.

“This is certainly not true from regional, national and international perspectives, and is surely no basis upon which to build a worthwhile and sustainable future.”

THIRTY two leading archaeologists have written to the Cambs Times and Wisbech Standard protesting at the “shocking and potentially disastrous” plan to ease archaeological surveys on new developments in Fenland.

In an extraordinary protest, co-ordinated by Christopher Evans, executive director of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit at Cambridge University, the archaeologists claim Fenland District Council could be breaking the law if it goes ahead with its proposals.

Their letter questions the legality of the remarks made by Council Leader Alan Melton during his speech at last week’s Fenland building design awards, sponsored by Fenland Council and the Cambs Times/Wisbech Standard.

THE FULL TEXT OF THE LETTER IS AS FOLLOWS:

We the undersigned consider to be shocking and potentially disastrous the recent declaration by Councillor Alan Melton (reported in the Cambs Times and Wisbech Standard) that, as of July 1st, the Fenland District Council will no longer apply archaeological planning condition.

His speech to the Fenland Council Building and Design Awards ceremony at Wisbech noted the safeguarding of natural and aesthetic concerns, but made no mention of heritage aside from: “in local known historical areas, such as next to a 1000 year old church…. Common sense will prevail! The bunny huggers won’t like this, but if they wish to inspect a site, they can do it when the footings are being dug out”.

If Fenland District Council proceed with these plans, not only will it find itself contravening national planning guidelines and existing cultural and heritage statute and case law, it is likely any development will be open to legal challenges that will involve the Council (and by extension its rate-payers) in major financial costs and cause prospective developers serious delays, if not worse.

All these factors run counter to Councillor Melton’s arguments and he will place Fenland District Council at a considerable financial risk.

Rather than, as claimed, being an impediment to local development, development-related archaeology is a highly professional field and the vast majority of such excavations within England occur without any delay or redesign consequences to subsequent building programmes. Indeed, not only is archaeological fieldwork a source of graduate employment, but also now significantly contributes to the local rural economy (plant hire, tourism etc.).

The issues raised by Councillor Melton directly reflect upon the role of localism and heritage. There is no denying that the past speaks to a local sense of place-value, identity and belonging. Yet, that is not tantamount to ‘ownership’ and does not make it a local prerogative to allow the wanton destruction of heritage, as it also exists within greater regional, national and international frameworks.

Of certain international significance within the Fenland District are the Roman town at Stonea (excavated by the British Museum, 1980-85) and the superbly preserved, 3000 year-old timber-platform settlement recently discovered in quarries at Must Farm, Whittlesey. Effectively a ‘prehistoric Pompeii’ with its wood, textiles and metalwork all preserved (see http://ucl.ac.uk/prehistoric/past/past063.pdf), the Must Farm site was only found through developer-funded fieldwork and now ranks amongst the most important later prehistoric sites in Europe.

It is, however, only one of a number of major archaeological sites that have been discovered within the district over the last decade. To list but a few, uniquely waterlogged Bronze Age landscapes have been excavated at both Thorney and March, and a number of important Iron Age and Roman settlements and specialist salt-production sites have also been investigated in advance of development.

For later periods, there has been evidence of timber buildings associated with the Saxon monastery at Ramsey (and, also there, a Medieval dock with a crane and warehouse); at Wisbech itself, interspersed with flood episodes, three metres depth of 13-15th century occupation has been documented.

Both there, and on other sites in the area, archaeology is providing direct evidence of long-term environment change and cultural responses to that change. Given its low sea-exposure topography, Fenland District archaeology is uniquely placed to address issues of such obvious pressing contemporary relevance.

If, under Councillor Melton’s guidance, Fenland District continues to push through with this irresponsible policy change, it amounts to saying that its local heritage is of no consequence. This is certainly not true from regional/national/international perspectives, and is surely no basis upon which to build a worthwhile and sustainable future.

Christopher Evans FSA MIFA, Executive Director, Cambridge Archaeological Unit, University of Cambridge

Prof Ian Armit FSA, Prof. of Archaeology, University of Bradford

Brian Ayers FSA, MIFA, Former Norfolk County Archaeologist

Prof Graeme Barker FBA, Disney Prof. of Archaeology, University of Cambridge

Dr David Barrett FSA, Chair, Association of Local Government Archaeologists, England

Prof John C. Barrett FSA, Prof. of Archaeology, University of Sheffield

Prof Richard Bradley FBA, Prof. of Archaeology, University of Reading

Martin Carver, Editor Antiquity

Prof Timothy Champion FSA, Prof. of Archaeology, University of Southampton

Prof Bryony Coles FBA, Prof. of Archaeology, University of Exeter

Prof John Coles FBA, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge

Dr Simon Collcutt FSA, Managing Director, Oxford Archaeological Associates

Prof Mark Edmonds, Prof. of Archaeology, University of York

Prof Dai Morgan Evans FSA, Visiting Prof. of Archaeology, University of Chester

Dr Charles French FSA, Reader in Geoarchaeology, University of Cambridge

Prof Michael Fulford CBE, FBA, Prof. of Archaeology, University of Reading

Prof Clive Gamble FBA, Prof. of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London

Dr Duncan Garrow, Lecturer in Archaeology, University of Liverpool

Prof Chris Gosden FBA, Prof. of Archaeology, University of Oxford

Prof Anthony Harding FBA, Prof. of Archaeology, University of Exeter

Prof Colin Haselgrove FBA, Prof. of Archaeology, University of Leicester

Dr Mike Heyworth MBE, Director, Council for British Archaeology

Dr JD Hill FSA, Research Manager, British Museum

Dr Catherine Hills FSA, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology, University of Cambridge

Prof Ian Hodder FBA, Dunlevie Family Prof., Stanford University, California

Prof Mark Horton FSA, Prof. of Archaeology, University of Bristol

Prof Timothy Insoll FSA, Prof. of Archaeology, University of Manchester

Prof Martin Jones FSA, Prof. of Archaeological Science, University of Cambridge

Prof Kristian Kristiansen FSA, Prof. of Archaeology, University of Gothenburg, Sweden

Dr Carenza Lewis FSA, Dept. of Archaeology, University of Cambridge and President, Cambridge Antiquarian Society

Dr Caroline Malone FSA, MIFA, Reader in Archaeology, Queen’s University, Belfast

Sir Paul Mellars FBA, Emeritus Prof. of Prehistory and Human Evolution, University of Cambridge

Prof Martin Millett FBA, Laurence Prof. of Classical Archaeology, University of Cambridge

Prof Robert Van de Noort FSA, MIFA, Prof. of Wetland Archaeology, University of Exeter

Prof Michael Parker Pearson FSA, Prof. of Archaeology, University of Sheffield

Dr Joshua Pollard, Reader in Archaeology, University of Southampton

Prof Dominic Powlesland FSA, Visiting Prof. of Archaeology, University of Leeds and Director, The Landscape Research Centre

Dr Kate Pretty, CBE, FSA, President of the Council for British Archaeology, Deputy Vice Chancellor, University of Cambridge

Prof Francis Pryor MBE, FSA, Prof. of Archaeology, University of Leicester and President, the Wisbech Society

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn FBA, Emeritus Prof. of Archaeology, University of Cambridge

Dr Tim Reynolds, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology, Birkbeck College, University of London, and former Cambs. County Archaeologist

Dr Ben Roberts, Curator of European Bronze Age, British Museum

Prof Chris Scarre FSA, Prof. of Archaeology, Durham University

Niall Sharples FSA, Reader in Archaeology, Cardiff University

Prof Steve Shennan FBA, Director, Institute of Archaeology, University College London

Dr Alison Sheridan FSA, President of the Prehistoric Society & Membre d’honneur du Conseil d’administration de la Soci�t� Pr�historique Fran�aise

Robin Standing, Royal Society for the Protection of Brids’ Archaeologist

Dr Marie Louise Stig S�rensen, Reader in Archaeology, University of Cambridge

Dr Simon Stoddart FSA MIFA, Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge

Prof Nicholas Thomas, Director, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Angus Wainwright, National Trust Archaeologist for East of England Region

Prof Geoffrey Wainwright MBE, FSA, Emeritus Prof. of Archaeology, University of Southampton and former Chief Archaeologist, English Heritage

Dr Gerald Wait FSA, MIFA, Hon. Chair Institute for Archaeologists and Director, Nexus Heritage

Prof Andrew Wallace-Hadrill OBE, FBA, Master, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

Prof Alasdair Whittle FBA, Prof. of Archaeology, Cardiff University

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