Last week I was in the City of York Council’s brand new West Offices building, a tasteful and modern refurbishment of a Grade 2* Listed former railway building. I was pleased by how well the building’s heritage had been treated and modernised. A perfect space for a modern council to administer the business of a historic city.
However, the very same day the news broke that proposals to drastically cut the historic enviornment services for the city’s councils were advancing, which would include the reduction of the City Archaeologist and Landscape Architect’s role from full time to 3 days per week, the reduction in Conservation Officers from 2.5 to just 0.6 and cutting the countryside manger post altogether.
Such a drastic cut is simply has to been seen by the conservation-minded citizen as absolutely outragous attack on this citie’s historic built environment, its heritage, and archaeology. Stinging criticism was quick from all angles of the profession and from the York Press (who’s article can be seen here).
I don’t think it can be stressed enough how much a city like York is built upon its historic environment. If the city has aspitations to continue to be a tourist hot-spot in the north of England, a scenic city which attracts investment and business, and a place where residents are proud to live, it must start by acknowledging and protecting its heritage. It is at the very base of what York is and why it is important. I have no doubt that the vast majority of people will confirm that, when asked. I fear that the Council are being duped by the false assumption that they will be seen as betraying residents if other services, such as education are cut, even if there is more scope to do so. Certainly expecting the already tiny historic environment team to bear a disproportionate share of the cuts is not the answer.
It is a serious worry that this proposal comes with no guidance over what services should be scaled back (or totally lost), no opportunity to justify existing roles before they are cut, and no strategy to deal with the shortfall in services that will be created. The fact is that development which affects archaeology in York requires some expert in the Council to comment on and pass archaeological reports from developers, to assess the quality of the consideration of the impact on heritage assets, and on their surroundings, contained within any proposals. Without adequate provision this simply will not be possible.
The fact is that many archaeological reports are poorly written and do not meet the requirements of the primary legislation or planning policy – it takes significant pushing for them to do their duty by planning policy. Without an expert assessment, it will not be possible to sort those who have carefully followed planning regulation from those who have simply treated the ‘heritage assessment’ part of the application as a burdensome extra to be got out of the way as quickly as possible.
These proposals are perhaps even more worrying for the indication they give as to the state of affairs nationally in the current climate. If a historic city of York’s calibre – a place where you can’t swing a shovel without striking nationally important archaeology - is able to do this, what hope for the archaeology and heritage services in other areas of the country not so famed for its historic architecture, heritage and archaeology? What hope for the Wolverhampton and Cleveland’s of this country – places which have only a fraction of the designated assets York does? York City Council are both embarressing themselves by cutting their heritage provisions below levels of other smaller and historically less significant authorities, and setting a dangerous precident for other historic towns and cities.
It is truly troubleing, also, that Local Authorities feel that meeting offical guidelines of the effective and legally mandated work to protect heritage is not worth following. Be it responding with an expert line on archaeological impact, or providing effective historic environment records.
It must be hoped that York City Council realise the error in judgement of these proposals. I must also be hoped that a great wave of public response makes them rethink, for the effects could be dire, both for York, and as a grim portent for the rest of the country.(Image: Inside the new City Council West Offices – credit: s-harrison.co.uk)