There is an ongoing consultation on the future of local government archaeology services, open till February 14th 2014. The text of the consultation, with some informative descriptive narrative, has been made available by Henry Rothwell so I shall point you towards the text and his commentary on it. In short, the Inquiry wishes to address the following themes:
1) The consideration of options for improving the sustainability of local services providing (i) curatorial advice, and (ii) HERs & archaeological archives, drawing on best practice from local authorities in England and elsewhere in the UK;
2) Whether the knowledge and enthusiasm of third sector organisations could be harnessed to help supplement public involvement in archaeology;
3) The consideration of (i) how the impending creation of Historic England could provide opportunities to forge closer links between local services and their national counterparts, and (ii) if current sector-produced standards and guidance provide the necessary rigour to underpin such a diversity of provision.
Whilst this could undoubtedly be placed in the context of further government cuts and privatisation, I would argue there is one major benefit which could be achieved through this process; namely, the long overdue overhaul of digital data resources used to underpin the planning process and archaeological research. The following comprises my observations on the current state of play and potential opportunities based on my academic experience as a digital heritage specialist and my practical experience working in the heritage sector as a curator of a heritage inventory, as a consultant for local government heritage teams and as a contractor working in the commercial sector.
The archaeological record in England currently comprises a disparate and diverse range of self-contained, unlinked information systems:
- non-digital systems
- digital indices to non-digital resources
- a range of non-spatial databases
- growing but by no means universal application of GIS
This is further compounded by there being at least two tiers of records; local records and national records:
- Historic Environment Records (HERs), typically maintained (where available) by local planning authorities
- A national record of archaeological sites, maintained (to some extent) by English Heritage as part of the English Heritage Archive.
- The National Heritage List for England (NHLE), maintained by English Heritage and covering only archaeological sites protected by some form of statutory designation
- The National Trust (NT) also maintains its own record for its properties
- Local/Regional inventories created to ‘plug gaps’ and to support eg management of sites
- Other organisations such as the Church of England are looking establish their own records to fulfil their own needs, further compounding the problem
So for any particular location, site or building, there can be multiple sets of records, potentially more where the location is close to the border between HERs or where there are different local circumstances, such as a National Park being responsible for planning and thus maintaining its own record separately from that of the parent local authority. Thankfully, the NHLE now integrates all statutory protection records as previously, these were also held separately.
Data can also enter some, all or none of these records. Some national programmes/projects, typically funded by EH, work to to the English Heritage Archive (formerly NMR) as primary repository, with local HERs left somewhat out of the loop. Conversely, most commercial archaeological projects result in depositions to the local HER, which may or may not be part of some data exchange arrangement with the national record. Alarmingly, some projects (particularly academic projects) do not submit results at all. Due to the diverse nature of archaeological repositories, there is little standardisation in submission requirements and a typical process often involves reduction to a paper (or pdf) report which is then subsequently used as the basis for the (re)creation of digital database (sometimes GIS) records. This is a time consuming process which contributes to the massive backlogs present at many HERs, backlogs which then affect the ability of HERs to provide information to support further projects.
A major step forward in recent years was the creation of a cross-searching portal, the Heritage Gateway. Unfortunately, this simply aggregates data and provides a single point of access for searching. It does not mediate between different interpretations of heritage data standards and vocabularies and it does not facilitate data sharing between data providing organisations nor obtaining data suitable for professional use.
This state of affairs is grossly inefficient for the management and use of these resources and provides a major headache for anyone trying to work with the data for anything other than a simple, single site focussed project in an area where there is no backlog. Anything larger requires integration of these disparate resources with necessary concordance of records, often a manual process where there are no cross-references or cross-references are no longer valid. For large planning assessments such as those associated with road schemes, wind farms, tidal power, etc the data gathering phase can take up a massive proportion of the project budget and when deadlines are tight, is a major obstacle to timely completion. Not to mention the many and varied charging and licensing policies enforced (or not) by host organisations which can be a significant obstacle to contractors and consultants; charges varying from zero to hundreds of pounds per hour do not make for a level and transparent playing field whilst licenses prohibiting commercial re-use of data are obviously unworkable. Associated with this is the delivery time for data, with some HERs requiring up to eight weeks to supply data, due in part to lack of resources compounded by backlogs and issues with extracting data from information systems; seriously problematic when working within the timescales set by the planning process. Furthermore, in too many cases, information is not able to be provided digitally other than as a pdf (which is little better than paper) and this is often due to poor IT provision within local government (old versions of operating systems, software), a lack of understanding regarding digital data and/or misinterpretation/misapplication of data licenses. Alarmingly, the provision of digital data (ie database/GIS extracts) rather than printouts is seen by some as a chargeable extra, above and beyond the norm, directly cutting across any initiatives regarding shared use of government spatial information.
Maintenance of archaeological records and data exchange are key problem areas, requiring considerable resources not just in terms of time and money but (with the increased use of digital systems) access to systems developers and skills to work effectively with databases and GIS plus in-depth knowledge of data standards such as MIDAS. Even with all this place, there can still be considerable variation in datasets due to differences in systems design and/or interpretation of standards (for example, the definition of a ‘monument’ and how such record or records are created and depicted).
Under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), the need for robust, easily accessible and workable source data is vital to be able to provide meaningful archaeological advice to inform planning decisions. Especially given the lack of protection afforded our heritage through this dramatically ‘simplified’ piece of legislation. I make a distinction here between the data used to inform archaeological advice and decision making and the process of providing that advice; this chimes with the split between 1i) and 1ii) in the terms of reference for this inquiry.
So, the big opportunity here is to improve the way in which we manage heritage inventories and at the same time reinforce the need for sound local archaeological advice. I reiterate, archaeological advice can only be provided by local specialists as only they will know their locality. Planners cannot adequately interpret complex archaeological data so simply providing raw data to planning teams is not viable although work undertaken through the English Heritage HER21 programme to provide planners with simplified risk and constraint mapping is a sensible move to help the planners know when, where and how to seek expert advice.
Regarding the maintenance of data, I separate this from the provision of advice as whilst the existing local focus of this function is absolutely necessary, there is no good reason for maintaining the current disjointed data infrastructure. Data resources, however, do not necessarily need to be maintained locally, with the resultant duplication of resources across multiple host organisations. This has already been acknowledged implicitly both within the heritage sector and without as cash-strapped local authorities seek to share services and resources to realise cost savings. The creation of a unified archaeological record with national coverage and incorporating statutory designations on top of archaeological sites would facilitate management, access and re-use of the data. But again, I stress, the provision of archaeological advice is not a service that can be successfully outsourced or centralised in the same was as other council services are being outsourced.
Any such major changes will, in the short term, require funding. But longer term, such changes should realise savings not just for planning authorities but throughout the supply chain with contractors and consultants being able to work in a more efficient manner and hence the total cost of planning reduced. Any ongoing savings resulting from such a transformation could be used to improve the quality of the data available and support the continued existence of specialist, local archaeological experts. Again, I would argue strongly against outsourcing or centralising being applied to the provision of archaeological advice as this would result in the loss of local expert knowledge. But freeing up the local experts in their advice giving role from systems and data management tasks would allow them to focus more on local needs. Heritage data management specialists could focus on creation, maintenance and enhancement of data with many such roles being outsourced and/or shared and/or centralised as needed.
To centralise or distribute…?
Of course, using distributed technologies and the web, it is possible to embed the data management roles as best suits each locality; it may be that some HERs do have access to the necessary skills and resources and would be able to contribute directly to the management of a national, unified record. GIS and web technologies now allow for the systems architecture to take any one of a number of shapes to fulfil these aims. Data could be held centrally or in a distributed system. Access rights to read and edit data could be delegated as necessary. The national record could well be a distributed system with components that come together (think Voltron) comprising HER databases, with the national overview currently (allegedly) fulfilled by the English Heritage Archive database being replaced by a dynamic view onto these component parts; funding could then be diverted from the English Heritage record to the HERs to ensure we have a single functioning system, albeit one which is accessed and the content maintained more locally. This could sit well with the proposed carving up of EH and change the remit of this national body to be one of facilitator and enabler through targeted deployment of resources to support local advice provision instead of simply duplicating what is already found at a local level. EH could provide the strategy and systems to support the kind of distributed yet centralised approach I am proposing. Where additional functionality is required (eg for management of World Heritage Sites, churches, etc) this could be layered on top of this architecture, under the guidance of EH. There would be a clearly defined entry point ie the local HER, be that hosted wherever. Access could be tiered to allow secure public and professional access; live access using a single portal, delivering data (both source data and interpretive data) in a consistent manner.
The key point here is that the current infrastructure is the result of history, it is quirky and disjointed, not the result of any kind of user needs requirement assessment or strategic planning. Layers of sticking plasters and well intentioned (and necessary) attempts to preserve skills and retain staff in the face of local authority cuts and reorganisations have resulted in a piecemeal pile which now requires more and more resources simply to keep up with little no hope for improvement. No-one would sit down today and deliberately pepper archaeologists across local authority directorates such as Leisure, Transport & Waste or Libraries, Museums and Archives. Or expect archaeologists with minimal training in heritage data management to be responsible for the archaeological record whilst at the same time fulfilling other highly skilled roles such as providing curatorial advice and contributing to the planning process. Nor base all this on such a range of data management tools and techniques, some of which are highly effective in the right hands, others less so. This consultation could provide such an opportunity for a root and branch review and overhaul, putting our knowledge as represented in our information systems firmly on a footing fit for the 21st century.
To outsource or not to outsource…?
Focussing on the heritage data management aspects of local government services, these could well be taken on by local government teams where those teams have a sound track record. I can think of a number of such teams who could offer such services externally. Of course, this provision of services could be seen as a reason to outsource such teams in their entirety as happened with archaeological fieldwork; the few local government field units surviving today are very much anomalous, given the direction provided by previous Planning Policy Guidance Notes, the commercialisation of that sector based on the ‘polluter pays’ principals. It has to be said, this has largely worked and is indeed a model that could be employed in this case also. The big question here is should local government heritage teams be tendering for and taking on projects, competing against commercial organisations? I would argue this is not the role of local government these days and local government should focus on core responsibilities.
A significant number of the successful field units are, of course, charities; commercialism in archaeology does not necessarily equate to hard nosed capitalism. Such charitable vehicles could well provide heritage functions including management of archaeological records. The third sector can and do contribute not only to provision of services but (given adequate funding) to item 2) in the terms of reference, ie outreach and community engagement. The notion of heritage ‘trusts’ currently emerging is a further example of this. Such activities could longer term be supported through the gains made from rationalising the national heritage record and even (potentially) a small levy on development which would be offset by the removal of the ridiculous fees for archaeological information currently charged.
Obviously, the technical details would need to be worked out but my recommendation can be summarised as follows:
- Create a unified archaeological resource, including all available data as currently held in various repositories
- Divorce data maintenance from advice provision so each can be handled in the most appropriate manner
- Maintain and reinforce the provision of local, expert archaeological advice
- Give responsibility for the creation, maintenance and enhancement of archaeological data within a national, unified record to heritage data specialists
- Leverage GIS and web based platforms to provide tiered, secure and shared access to the unified resource
Thoughts, comments, etc welcome.