Bath & NE Somerset Council to cut archaeology services

The future provision of archaeological services by Bath and North East Somerset Council is uncertain following the departure of its senior archaeological officer, Richard Sermon, and a review to reduce costs.

Following the Council’s decision not to fill the vacant Historic Environment Record Officer post, and the expectation that Richard Sermon would cover the HER workload on top of his own, Richard decided his only option was early retirement.

The Council now has no archaeologists at all in post. Like many other councils facing continued reductions in government funding, Bath & NE Somerset is having to make savings and archaeology is one of the areas that is being targeted. In a reply to a letter from Henry Lowe (BACAS Chair), Councillor Bob Goodman said:

“… the Council needs to save a further £37 million over the next three years and it is hoped to do this by protecting frontline services as far as possible and continuing to invest in important local priorities such as affordable housing, transport improvements and economic growth to create good local jobs and protect the natural and built environment.

“Managers have been asked to review spending and the delivery of services in line with this approach. I can assure you that the Council will continue to deliver an archaeology service going forward, which provides best value for money and with minimum disruption. We anticipate that this will also include management of the HER. We will provide information on how this service will be delivered in due course. … It will however be the case, now and going forward, that the Council can no longer resource general archaeology advice to archaeological groups. … We will of course continue to provide a full service in respect of archaeological requirements arising out of planning applications and therefore to any organisations involved with these matters. Historic England of course remains a contact point in respect of scheduled sites.”

Councils have certain statutory requirements in regard to archeological matters. As Goodman says, dealing with planning applications is one of them. However, Goodman seems unaware that maintenance of the Historic Environment Record (HER) is also a statutory duty.

Bob Whitaker, BACAS Archaeological Advisor, is very concerned: “We had an excellent relationship with the Bath & NE Somerset archaeologist concerning the Bathscape Project and the BACAS projects, LEAP and Archaeology of Roman Keynsham, and ongoing cooperation with that postholder on planning issues, both developer led and those only requiring watching briefs. The idea that in the interim a non qualified member of the Council could make decisions on archaeological matters relating to specific planning applications, including the maintenance of the HER, is absurd and a very dangerous proposition, resulting potentially in developments where clearly important archaeology is destroyed. In this World Heritage City and with the wealth of archaeology everywhere, it is inconceivable that the council can dispense with professional archaeologists.”

Henry Lowe, BACAS Chair, said: “Our society worked closely with Richard Sermon and had, under his direction and supervision, undertaken a considerable amount of archaeological work in the region. Our mission is to widen public interest in and provide opportunities for practical involvement with archaeology. The loss of a Council full-time post based in Bath will significantly hamper our efforts to provide public archaeological programmes and Bath will lose the element of continuity such a post provides.

“Bath’s approach to heritage is always in the national and international spotlight, so how the Council approaches its NPPF archaeological obligations will be noted not only within the world of those who are particularly interested in the historic environment, but also by members of the general public who are concerned for endangered archaeology worldwide. A reorganisation should be to advance the care of our archaeology, not simply part of a cost-cutting exercise. Bath frequently plays host to conferences on history and heritage, and it would seem essential that our approach to archaeology through the Council services complements the good practices of sites such as the Roman Baths, which aim for the highest standards. In this way we can enhance our cultural economy.

“Our history and heritage belong to all and should continue to be enjoyed by all in the future.”

Note (5/02/2022): this article was updated to clarify that Richard Sermon took early retirement, not voluntary redundancy.