Fenland, bunny huggers and polar bears

Photograph of Town Walls, Newcastle upon Tyne © Janet E Davis

Town Walls, Newcastle upon Tyne © Janet E Davis. Newcastle upon Tyne has a defensive wall dating from mid-13th century. Some substantial sections, turrets and a few towers remain. The wall was partly demolished in 18th and 19th centuries to enable expansion.

Councillor Alan Melton was giving a speech at the 4th annual Cambs Times/Wisbech Standard/Fenland Council Building and Design Awards final, at Wisbech Boathouse. He had decided that it would be a good occasion to give a policy speech. He started with the not-unfamiliar local politician theme of encouraging construction projects for the sake of economic development in the area. Approximately three-quarters of the way through the speech, the Fenland District Council Leader veered from the usual script about this topic:

“I can announce tonight, that from the 1st July. A requirement for an archaeological dig/survey will not be required. The requirement will no longer feature at pre-app. Or form part of the committee agenda.”

He seemed to get mixed up between the historic and natural environment specialists in his excitement at announcing such a radical departure from local authority planning procedures.

“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.”

Then he revealed that he is something of a sceptic regarding climate change:

“Of course we shall seek to be sustainable and practical, but we won’t dwell too much on the scriptures of the new religion.

I don’t believe that polar bears will be floating down the Nene in my life time or indeed my children’s.

I think we all need more convincing about some of the conflicting stories that are constantly peddled.”

John Elworthy, ‘Regulations swept aside…’ Cambs Times24 22nd June 2011

When I first read quotes from this speech, they seemed so strange that at first I thought it was a joke about ‘Localism.’ Then I saw that the story had appeared on East Anglian press websites, and realised that it was definitely not a joke. The comments that Alan Melton has made since then in response to correspondence on this topic have been even stranger. He might have overestimated what power a leader of a district council can wield in the 21st century.

Archaeologists consulted with each other and the Archaeology Forum soon produced a coordinated, official response to Councillor Melton’s comments on the afternoon of 23rd June. The news item ‘Fenland Furore’ on the CBA (Council for British Archaeology) website has a link to the pdf file with the Archaeology Forum’s response which includes the clear statement:

“The suggestion in news reports that national planning policy for the
historic environment (PPS5) – and in particular the requirement for pre-application
archaeological assessment – will no longer apply to FDC’s planning decisions and will be ‘suspended’ from 1 July is incorrect.”
Gill Chitty, Council for British Archaeology; Secretary, The Archaeology Forum, Fenland District Council announcement on planning and archaeology: Archaeology Forum response [pdf linked from ‘Fenland furore’ news item dated 23rd June 2011, CBA website].

I have not yet seen a response from natural environment organisations about Councillor Alan Melton’s policy speech. Fenland is a particularly fragile and important type of natural environment. He would be unlikely to see “polar bears floating down the Nene” since most if not the whole area of the Fens would be under the sea.

For those less familiar with archaeology, the idea of all archaeologists being “bunny huggers” is rather bizarre. Wild or feral rabbits can cause problems with archaeological remains. They dig through and disturb the original layers in which things were deposited, or their tunnelling can undermine and cause some subsidence to archaeological structures. Management of archaeological sites can involve pest control.

The last sentence of the Archaeology Forum’s response makes it clear why a speech by a district council’s leader provoked such a swift and firm statement by national organisations:

“APPAG [All-Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group] members, preparing for the debates on the Localism Bill in the House of Lords, may find this an interesting illustration of what the future of business-led, neighbourhood planning might look like in a deregulated world.”

Gill Chitty, Council for British Archaeology; Secretary, The Archaeology Forum, Fenland District Council announcement on planning and archaeology: Archaeology Forum response [pdf linked from ‘Fenland furore’ news item dated 23rd June 2011, CBA website].

I shall be watching out with interest for any sequels to this story. We clearly still have a lot of work to do to help people to understand the great value of the historic environment to communities.

Sources and further reading

John Elworthy, ‘Regulations swept aside as Fenland Council leader urges lets get building again: full speech here,’ Cambs Times24, 22nd June 2011.

<http://www.cambstimes.co.uk/news/regulations_swept_aside_as_fenland_council_leader_urges_lets_get_building_again_full_speech_here_1_929638&gt; Last accessed 24th June 2011.

John Elworthy, ‘Regulations swept aside as Fenland Council leader urges lets get building again: full speech here,’ Wisbech Standard24, 22nd June 2011.

<http://www.wisbechstandard.co.uk/news/regulations_swept_aside_as_fenland_council_leader_urges_lets_get_building_again_full_speech_here_1_929638#&gt; Last accessed 23rd June 2011.

Chris Bishop, ‘Development rules relaxed in the Fens – but the “bunny huggers won’t like it,” warns council leader,’ EDP24, 23rd June 2011.

<http://www.edp24.co.uk/news/development_rules_relaxed_in_the_fens_but_the_bunny_huggers_won_t_like_it_warns_council_leader_1_929730 > Last accessed 23rd June 2011.

Gill Chitty, ‘Fenland Furore,’ CBA website, 23rd June 2011.

<http://www.britarch.ac.uk/news/110623-fenland&gt; Last accessed 24th June 2011.

Chris Bishop, ‘Fens “bunny hugger” row latest – now the archaeologists hit back at council leader,’ Cambs Times24, 23rd June 2011.

<http://www.cambstimes.co.uk/news/fens_bunny_hugger_row_latest_now_the_archaeologists_hit_back_at_council_leader_1_931924&gt; Last accessed 24th June 2011.

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3 thoughts on “Fenland, bunny huggers and polar bears

  1. Pingback: Fenland Council plan to scrap all pre-development archaeological assessment – roundup « Finds and Features

  2. sheridan

    He has now made a response, although it’s the sort of forced “I only meant to start a debate” response a recalcitrant sixth former might make.

    Reply

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