Understanding cultural heritage in EIA

6th November 2013

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  • Local government



Environmental impact assessment (EIA) practitioners from Terence O'Rourke describe why understanding and using cultural heritage is important throughout the planning process

The ongoing changes to planning policy, and restricted resources at local authorities and English Heritage, highlight the importance of accurate and comprehensive planning application submissions. Good quality applications are key to ensuring applications are validated and approved in a timely manner, and result in sustainable development in accordance with planning policy and guidance.

The government recently consulted on revised national planning practice guidance to accompany the national planning policy framework. The new online guidance has been refined and promotes better community involvement, with a user-friendly format designed to make the guidance more accessible and simpler to update.

The draft guidance maintains the existing approach to conserving heritage assets in a manner appropriate to their significance. This core principle underpins the assessment of impacts on heritage assets or their setting.

Alongside emerging guidance there are also a number of changes that have been instigated by the current government that have implications for cultural heritage as part of the planning process.

Following the government spending review, it was announced that English Heritage will restructure in 2015. This will occur at a time when local authority cultural heritage staffing resources continue to be reduced.

A recent report by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation, supported by English Heritage, into staffing levels at England’s local authorities reveals that the number of conservation specialists in English councils fell by 4% in 2012, and has fallen by 33% since 2006.

Understanding and using cultural heritage throughout the planning process is key to ensuring that, at a time of policy change and reduced resources, sustainable development is secured in a timely manner and heritage assets are appropriately conserved.

Terence O’Rourke’s recent experience on a housing scheme near Wellington in Somerset highlighted the importance of identifying the role of cultural heritage from project inception through to delivery of development on the ground.

In particular, the project revealed that establishing appropriate mitigation at an early stage and accounting for contingencies based on a thorough understanding of baseline information, are particularly crucial.

Preliminary work at this greenfield site involved the production of a desk-based assessment; a non-intrusive survey (for example,a site walkover and geophysical survey); monitoring of geotechnical trial pits; trial trenching; and ongoing consultation with the Somerset county archaeologist.

This enabled an understanding of the heritage resource that could then be used to appraise the development scheme and feed into the master planning exercise at an early stage.

This also ensured that archaeological works could be integrated into the overall works to minimise the impact on the construction programme. It enabled the archaeologists and other contractors to understand what each other needed to achieve, and helped to keep costs under control and obviate unplanned delays.

Extensive preplanning surveys enabled the preparation of a detailed and focused written scheme of investigation (WSI) as part of the environmental statement. Once the WSI was agreed with the county archaeologist it was used to guide the necessary fieldwork and ensure appropriate mitigation measures were in place to prevent any adverse impacts on the cultural heritage resource.

Following the approval of the planning application the mitigation strategy was implemented and four identified areas were subject to a strip, map and record exercise ahead of development taking place.

These excavations revealed a wealth of artifacts including a number of stone tools dating to the Palaeolithic period and evidence of a Bronze Age farming landscape consisting of field systems, enclosures, track ways and paddocks.

The most striking discovery was that of an unknown complex of medieval buildings. The use of the site remains a mystery, but the stone foundations, together with finds of roof slates, glazed ceramic roof tiles and beautifully decorated floor tiles, show that these were substantial buildings of high status, perhaps part of a religious or manorial site.

While the scale of finds was unexpected, appropriate mitigation provided an opportunity to use the cultural heritage resource for the benefit of the developer, and academic and public communities alike. Information on the discoveries was disseminated through media days, public exhibitions and online resources, and will be deposited in an accessible archive.

Developer funded archaeology and cultural heritage work continues to evolve and the positive association with our past remains of fundamental importance to businesses and cultural heritage professionals alike.

Understanding and using cultural heritage throughout the planning process is key to ensuring a sustainable balance between development and the conservation of the historic environment.

This article was written as a contribution to the EIA Quality Mark’s commitment to improving EIA practice.

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