Margaret Thatcher’s Legacy To Archaeology Undone By Her Heirs

Margaret Thatcher : Wiki Commons

The Government of Margaret Thatcher played a crucial, if unwitting, role in the development of modern UK Archaeology. Yet as former UK Prime Minister is buried in London her Conservative heirs in the governing coalition are busy undoing her Government’s system for protecting archaeology and the environment in the planning process. Andy Brockman reflects on this unexpected legacy.

For someone whose cultural terms of reference supposedly did not extend much further than the novels of Frederick Forsyth and porcelain models of Royal Marines, Margaret Thatcher, whose funeral took place on Wednesday, made a huge, if perhaps unintended, contribution to the development of modern British Archaeology.


Indeed, it is ironic that, as the sound of the minute guns fades away and the BBC returns to being able to play seventy year old songs from “the Wizard of Oz” without a political commentary to explain why they are suddenly so popular, the same Tory Party which last week spent seven hours eulagising its lost leader [six and thee quarter hours more than was spent paying tributes to Winston Churchill], this week came close to losing a Parliamentary vote which represented another step in undoing the Thatcher legacy. In this case it is the legacy of protection for our archaeological heritage embodied in the Planning System which is under threat, most recently from the proposal in Chancellor George Osborne’s March budget to exempt large ground floor extensions to domestic houses from the need to apply for Planning Permission from the local planning authority.

That Thatcherite legacy to archaeology came into force in November 1990, just as Prime Minister Thatcher was being defenestrated by the self same people who have been cheer leading at her £10 million funeral. In November 1990 the Thatcher Government introduced “Planning Policy Guidance 16-Archaeology in Planning”, mercifully soon shortened to PPG16. PPG16 was a guidance paper which required the impact of any development on archaeology to be considered as a routine and integral part of the planning process by anyone who wished to undertake a development requiring planning permission. The unwitting effect of PPG16 was to change the practice of British Archaeology out of all recognition. As the impact of PPG16 rippled through the system, archaeology as a discipline found itself putting on a suit, becoming a profession and sitting down in planning meetings with architects and developers to discuss fitting in an excavation alongside the other building site preparation and ground works.

While it came on top of other high profile sites destroyed or threatened by development during the tenure of the Wilson, Callaghan and Thatcher Governments in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the immediate spur to the creation of PPG 16 was the slow motion omnishambles following the discovery of Shakespeare’s Rose Theater in Southwark in the Spring and Summer of 1989. The discovery of “Shakespeare’s Rose” during an office development, saw leading actors including Sir Ian Mckellen and Dame Peggy Ashcroft, facing down the developers bulldozers, standing alongside archaeologists, the general public and local children waiving placards declaiming “Don’t Doze the Rose”.

Faced with this highly public demand that the historic site be protected, the Environment Department, under Secretary of State Nicholas Ridley, proved utterly incapable of formulating a coherent policy to dig the developer Imry Merchant and the Government out of the mire they had been placed in by the media, the campaigners, the Museum of London Archaeologist’s trenches and not least their own attempts to deregulate planning controls. The legal and planing systems to cope with such an important and high profile archaeological discovery simply did not exist amid the ideological commitment to a free market in development. To make matters worse, those in charge of planning, from Townhall to Whitehall completely failed to take account of the strength of public opinion when faced with the loss of a significant and evocative piece of Our Heritage.


The immediate cost of this organisational shambles and public relations disaster, which became coupled with a strong showing by the Green Party in the May 1989 European elections highlighting the political importance of environmental policy, was the head of Secretary of State Ridley who lost his job in Prime Minister Thatcher’s July 1989 reshuffle. However, with the immediate political price paid and the future of the Rose fudged in a way which pleased all parties at least in part, minds in Whitehall turned to finding a way of preventing such a debacle happening again.

Everyone accepted that development and change was inevitable and often desirable, so what was clearly needed was a tool in planning which could predict and neutralise potential issues such as the Rose before they jumped up to bite the politicians. The system would have to allow a breathing space for the decision makers in local and national government, to work with developers, heritage professionals and even the public who had proved so embarrassing to Ridley, to develop mitigation strategies. Therefore under the new system, which became PPG16, what was really important would be preserved for the future in situ, while what had to be destroyed would be preserved by record through desk based research and, if judged to be necessary, excavation. There should be no more cases like the Temples of Mithras, saved by public campaign like the Rose, only to be lifted stone by stone and reconstructed on a new site, out of alignment and out of context as had occurred across the River Thames in the City of London during the earlier free for all building boom of the 1950’s.

Of course Baroness Thatcher was famously careful of the Government purse strings so the system could not cost the Exchequer. Therefore, alongside the principles of preservation in situ and preservation by record, the overarching principle which PPG16 established was “the polluter pays”. This principle that those wishing to pollute, damage or change the environment paid for any mitigation, including archaeology, was taken from other environmental legislation and was a recognition that developers have a right to develop, but with that right comes responsibilities to wider society which are greater than providing short term jobs in construction, minimising their own costs and maximising their profits. By this definition the polluter also includes the domestic developer who fancies building an extension to their house- perhaps over some previously unknown archaeology. It is this principle, which is seen as “a Tax on development,” by the free market right. A view which has led to the the attempts to water down environmental and heritage protection by the Cameron Government, led by Chancellor Osborne.

Back in 1989 there was an immediate problem in introducing PPG16. A formalised structure for archaeology in planning, such as that provided by PPG16, clearly needed to be serviced by people with the same ability to engage with the system to the same schedules and using the same language as the architects and developers whose plans the system was designed to facilitate. This was beyond the capability of the traditional local Archaeological Society or Universities which could not deliver excavations in the quantity and to the time scale required by developers. Thus PPG16 also gave the spur to the professionalisation of archaeology outside traditional academic, local society and museum structures. In particular the new regime gave rise to the development of professional contracting archaeological units such as Museum of London Archaeology, Wessex Archaeology and the Canterbury Archaeological Trust, which had often existed in embryo since the Rescue Archaeology boom of the 1970’s, but which now had a formal reason to exist to facilitate the new planning system and income streams from PPG16 related work which would allow them to be grown as businesses with all the accouterments of management and consultants.

PPG16’s origins as a response to a crisis within an existing industry, building and development, meant Archaeologists were late to the professional structure of development and, for the bulk of archaeologists, wages and conditions for archaeologists on site have never caught up with other sectors of the building industry such as skilled craftsmen, architects and engineers, but at least archaeologists were there inside the tent doing what they could to mitigate the threats to our collective past and hopefully in the process generate new knowledge.

PPG16 was not perfect, for one thing it was only ever advisory, while professionalisation has proved a double edged sword with some archaeologists in other sectors of the discipline feeling excluded. A further criticism lay in the fact that, by the very nature of the development process, sites were chosen by developers, not archaeologists so new data was skewed towards sites with a high turnover of development sites such as the City of London and other urban areas. However, in pulling together previous unfocused, uneven and ineffective guidance into one document which had as a foundation the principle that our archaeology represents an irreplaceable finite and non renewable resource, it was certainly better than anything which had gone before. In addition, once PPG16 and the concept of developer funded archaeology was in place, pipeline surveys and large scale infrastructure projects like Heathrow Terminal 5 and HS1, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, did offer the chance to develop practice and sample large transects of landscape to sometimes startling effect.

The political lesson of PPG16 and what led to it, must be that if even free marketeers like Baroness Thatcher herself, could see that some aspects of our collective past are beyond financial and political price, then all Politicians and not least her ideological successors, forget that at their peril. Faced with the political dangers of another collision between development and cherished aspects of our heritage and environment, such as the Rose, perhaps the current Government should adopt a little historical perspective and return to those Thatcherite principles which accepted archaeology and development could co-exist and must, because our archaeology is irreplaceable and finite. If they did so they would also realise that at some point they will have to put the system of protection for the historic and natural environment they are currently destroying back in place, or potentially face another PR, career destroying, disaster of Rose Theatre proportions.

Ministers might also realise that to operate such a system you need the trained, experienced, professionals which were created by the demands of PPG16 and who are currently leaving the archaeological profession in droves, or who; thanks to cuts to education provision, the concentration of University authorities on profit centers and the chilling effect of University Tuition Fees; might never enter the profession in the first place.

On 29 May 1989 still Prime Minister Thatcher told Simon Hughes MP for Southwark, who had taken a leading role in attempts to save the Rose,

“I agree that the discovery of the remains of the Elizabethan Rose theatre is a historic event, and that everything possible must be done to preserve those remains so that one day they may be on public display. I understand that there have been very constructive discussions—as the hon. Gentleman has said—between the developers, English Heritage and the Museum of London, and that as a result the remains are to be preserved with minimal damage. I welcome that; and it does not rule out the possibility of a scheme for public display one day. In the meantime, constructive discussions continue.”

Margaret Thatcher : Prime Ministers Questions, 11 May 1989

Those “constructive discussions” over the fate of the Rose, pre-figured the discussions PPG16 and its successors, PPS 5 and the National Planning Policy Framework [NPPF], are supposed to enshrine as a routine part of the planning system. However the selective suspension and, in some cases, destruction, of elements of heritage and environmental protection in the name of cutting “Red Tape”, coupled with the ignoring of professional advice, such as occurred in June 2011 when then Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt overruled advice from English Heritage and refused to list the Broadgate Center in the City of London, threatens, not only our environment and our past, but also Minister’s own reputations for even handedness. It also threatens the effective working relationships with organisations like English Heritage and the National Trust built up in the years since PPG16 came into force. By refusing to honour the principle that the polluter pays, on the dubious grounds that all that is preventing the UK Economy from roaring away is the environmental protections offered by the planning system, the Cameron Government is picking a fight which it does not need, apparently to please a small, but financially powerful, lobby within the Conservative Party.

To misquote another of Mrs Thatcher’s, Ministers, Lord Howe, English Heritage and others in the Heritage and Environmental Community are currently being sent into bat “…only to find their bats have been broken before the game by the team Captain.” Of course the bats of Conservative Party donors from the development lobby and the City of London remain intact. Team Captains, Chancellor Osborne and Prime Minister Cameron should remember the fate of Nicholas Ridley and the Conservative Party’s reputation in the Spring and Summer of 1989, and take note of the power of the Heritage and Environmental lobby which prevented them turning the NPPF into a “Developers Charter” in 2012, in case they receive the gift of another Rose.

Written by Andy Brockman

HeritageDaily : Archaeology News : Archaeology Press Releases


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Andy Brockman
Andy Brockman
Andy Brockman[ ] is director of Operations Room Archaeology [the Op’s Room] and the Digging Dad’s Army Project and is a specialist in the Archaeology of Modern Conflict. He has a particular interest in community based projects which involve research into archaeology within living memory and supports Operation Nightingale, a British Army initiative to use archaeology to help rehabilitate injured servicemen and women.




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