HC Deb 18 July 1972 vol 841 cc553-62

As amended ( in the Standing Committee ), considered.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

11.20 p.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

It is not inappropriate that we should be discussing tonight an archaeological Measure—and whereas I would not pretend that in New Palace Yard there is anything like a field monument, the fact remains that we have archaeology literally at our own back door.

I will not burden the House with details about what should or should not be going on in New Palace Yard at present, but I should like to pose a question to the Under-Secretary of State. I hope that we are setting a good example and that there is archaeological supervision taking place. This may be the entrance to the old Palace of Westminster.

I see the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) in his place and I know that he takes a lively interest in these matters. I hope the Department realises that a number of hon. Members are interested in how we conduct these matters which are personal to us and near to us. We hope that perhaps the Under-Secretary will stray a little out of order and say what his Department is doing to make sure that the House of Commons and the Palace of Westminster are setting a fairly good example.

Although we have tabled a formal Motion on this Bill, I hope that it will be accepted that it is not the purpose of the Opposition to delay what we regard as a welcome Measure.

The background of the matter is that there are a large number of archaeological sites which are being destroyed each year by, for example, motorway construction, urban development, extraction of mineral resources and especially gravel, and above all by deep ploughing.

A not unreasonable estimate is that there are 16 sites per square mile over the country as a whole, with two per linear mile of motorway. These date from 500,000 BC down to the Industrial Revolution. The majority are not visible on the surface and can be elucidated only by archaeological investigation. The sites are as different and as unique as possible; very many of them add something new to our knowledge of our own past.

For half a million years down to the Roman conquest they are our only source of information. After the Roman conquest the sites are augmented, but not supplanted, by documentary material. Indeed, in many cases the documents are only comprehensible in the light of archaeological evidence.

Having said this, may I add that none of us pretends that all sites can be preserved. In most cases it would be quite unjustifiable to hold up motorway construction or some other development. But what is reasonable—and this is the "bull" point of the Bill—is that many sites should be saved from deep ploughing and new methods of agriculture which are rather different from the techniques that lasted many centuries.

The Opposition welcome the system of acknowledgment payments and hope that it is effective as embodied in the Bill. Where possible monuments should be kept as a reserve of information, to be investigated without duress and at some leisure or by more advanced methods in the future. The situation is in some ways like the list of pictures which must be kept in this country—except that these sites are much more important to our own British history than Titian's "Death of Actaeon," which is not part of our culture. When we bear in mind the sum of £100,000 in relation to that painting—and I hesitate, to make comparisons—it seems strange that for want of a few thousand pounds priceless archaeological sites should be lost for ever. On the other hand, we have spent a great deal of public money in preserving one, and perhaps not the most important, Titian.

What is required is not so much preservation as investigation. This means a breathing space. One of the reasons why we welcome the Bill is that it gives us something of a breathing space. It is the opportunity for a breathing space which was important to the Walsh Committee and which we welcome.

I want to raise again one or two issues which came up in Committee. First, we think on reflection that the occupier and landowner must be informed, as well as the tenant to whom payment is made. This point was emphasised by a number of hon. Members, especially by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. David Clark). We can see certain circumstances in which a breakdown of communication is almost certain to take place.

The second question is whether £150,000 is enough. I can understand the chagrin of the Department which, doubtless in the best of faith, gave certain specific undertakings about the site at Durrington Walls in Wiltshire. But ploughing has taken place in parts of a site about which specific questions were asked and specific undertakings were given by the now Minister of State for Northern Ireland, who was the present Minister's predecessor. Parts of this important site have been destroyed. I am not saying to the Department, "I told you so". One realises that accidents can happen. But one is entitled to ask whether these acknowledgment payments will be of benefit, as we have all hoped. I put the question gently. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will say a little about it. In the same breath, the example of Corebridge on Tyne was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop).

The third matter is the way in which schoolchildren can help, not in excavating sites, but certainly in conserving and preserving them, undertaking some of the functions of a conservation corps.

The fourth issue is the appointment of warders and qualified staff. What has taken place since our discussions in Committee on remuneration for wardens, how many have been recruited, and how does the situation look like working out? Some two months later, we hope that progress has been made.

The fifth is a simple fiscal point. It concerns taxation. It was said in Committee that the payments would be tax-free. As an active member of the Committee which has been considering the Finance Bill, I know that the Committee did not discuss this matter. Have any conclusions been reached in discussions with the Treasury?

There is another matter that I wish to raise, and perhaps the best way to do it is by means of a concrete example. The one that I take is the village of Puck ridge in Hertfordshire. There is a second century Roman cremation cemetery over an Iron Age village. Iron brooches and coins have been found there. It is aptly named Skeleton Green. The site lies on the northern edge of the present village at the foot of Wickham Hill, where the Roman town lay beside Ermine Street. The Puck ridge bypass will cut across the area, so it is being investigated in advance by the East Hertfordshire Archaeological Society.

The reason why I raise this example is that, for the first time in Britain, a Clause has been written into—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. This is outside the scope of the Bill, unless he can show me how he relates it to the Bill. The hon. Gentleman is developing a detailed case.

Mr. Dalyell

I use it as an example arising out of our discussions in Committee. This is the first time in Britain that a Clause has been written into a road contract to allow archaeologists to work unhindered for an agreed period before construction begins. The contractors have co-operated in the advance work. Certainly during discussions on Second Reading and in Committee a great deal of emphasis was laid on the importance of a breathing space—the fact that contractors, farmers and other owners of small sites should not rush at things, so that the archaeologists did not have time to establish the evidence and at least record before something was destroyed.

I wish to raise with the Minister the question of marine archaeology and the Holland Herald's account of the East Indiaman, the "Amsterdam". Does what applies on land also apply—on a somewhat larger scale—on the sea? Some of us think that the "Amsterdam" could be a top tourist attraction and could be restored—either by Dr. Van den Heidi, of the Netherlands, or by British marine archaeologists, who are second to none—in the way that the "Vassar" was restored.

We are extremely interested in the follow up to the Field Monuments Bill—major ancient monuments legislation. I shall not go into details about the preservation of the Roman basilica—perhaps the largest north of the Alps—that lies in Leaden hall Street, or about plans put forward by the Opposition Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish), about the development of the whole of Thames side for the nine miles east of Black friars, but it is relevant to say that standard procedures should be established whereby the archaeological potential of all sites threatened by development were considered at an early stage in the planning. If this were done arrangements could be made in good time, and essential preliminary fund-raising could be carried out so that there would not be a repetition of what happened in the case of Baynard's Castle.

Andrew Selkirk, editor of Current Archaeology, referred to buildings. What formal meetings will the Department have with Martin Biddle and others who have written "The Erosion of History", on urban archaeology and, not least, in the light of the Bill brought forward this afternoon by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. Taverne)?

It is on the question of urban archaeology that I wish to end. All of us are concerned about what has happened in Lincoln, where one-fifth of the Roman town is already destroyed. It is a major tourist dollar-earner, as are many other archaeological sites.

The subject that my hon. and learned Friend went into—the £7,000 payment by the Department of the Environment to the Lincoln police authority for permission to excavate the site of the new police headquarters—needs some explanation. Many of us are more interested in what will happen to professional Lincoln archaeologists. That would be outside the scope of the Bill, and I do not want to abuse the time of the House by going into details of a particular case. I just wish to put down a marker with the Department to show that we are interested in Miss Christina Collyer's future. The market site in Lincoln is a national monument, and attention should be paid to recent Press reports of exactly what went on. The Department of the Environment cannot pass by on the other side of the road.

Some of us would have liked to draw a contrast between what has happened in Lincoln and the kind of things that have happened in York, except that we gather that the shortage of funds has caught up with York and the eight appointments by Peter Addyman, Director of Archaeology in York, have not all been filled. It may be that money will not be available, either, to do the excavations or to do the jobs that have been advertised.

We come back finally to the issue of money. It is true that the amount earmarked for archaeology has risen in the last few years. I do not wish to make a party point about it. But a great deal more remains to be done, and when one thinks that archaeology is very much part of our British heritage, I want to express the view on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends that, considering the recent increase in interest and expertise in archaeology, there should be generous action by the Treasury.

11.35 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I do not wish to detain the House. I must be careful not to stray out of order, though I am sure that your interest in things marine, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will not disallow me to make reference to what was said by the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) on an important aspect of this subject, even if not, strictly speaking, covered by the Bill. You know from your agricultural interests that the scope of the Bill covers many important matters, and your sense of history and love of this place will make you fully aware of what the hon. Gentleman said about New Palace Yard, even if that was straying near the bounds of order. I am satisfied that the Department of the Environment will maintain constant surveillance over what goes on there and that nothing will escape it.

I hope that the passing of the Bill will renew public interest in these matters, that landowners will be more friendly disposed to archaeologists and archaeology, and that public money being involved will stimulate the use of a little well-placed private money. We should do nothing to discourage people, such as the great marmalade proprietor, Mr. Keiller, who spent most of his fortune at Avebury. The public purse cannot do it all. If we have to deal with unwilling landowners and disinterested members of the public, public money will not go very far.

I agree with the hon. Member for West Lothian about trying to get more public interest and support. The Government are obviously right to introduce this Measure. Archaeology is not a dead science. It is very much part of living history, if one considers it seriously, and there is growing interest among young people. Therefore, I welcome the Bill.

11.37 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

We welcome the general support given to this Measure which, though small, is useful and makes specific proposals for safeguarding field monuments which, in many cases, are prominent features of our environment. The Bill deals exclusively with monuments which lie in those areas of the countryside where there is agricultural production and afforestation.

The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) will understand that I cannot follow him over the wide range of archaeological matters to which he referred. I will do my best now to answer some of the many questions which he posed. If there are any oustanding questions I shall closely examine his speech and write to him in more detail as soon as possible.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the New Palace Yard excavations. I assure him that they are under close archaeological watch by the Department's inspectors.

The hon. Gentleman asked about schoolchildren helping regarding monuments covered by the Bill. A great deal of skill is required in archaeological exploration of this kind and a considerable degree of supervision is necessary on occasions, but, as I promised in Committee, we will certainly look into the general situation with the departments concerned because there could be some developing interest for children in monuments not of national but of local importance. It may be that educational institutions could properly engage the developing interest of children in that respect.

The hon. Gentleman asked about informing owners. He will know that we have agreed with both the National Farmers Union and the Country Landowners Association that they will encourage occupiers to inform owners of the agreements into which they enter. There is no doubt that landowners, in the interests of good estate management, will want a developing interest in these matters and will be encouraged, especially through the NFU and CLA.

The hon. Gentleman asked about wardens. We expect to recruit about a dozen to start with, but we cannot begin recruitment until the Bill becomes law.

It is true that the acknowledgment payment agreements will result in about £150,000 a year being distributed to those who enter into agreements, and I remind the hon. Gentleman that there has been an increase of provision this year in respect of archaeological expenditure. It is one-quarter more than it was last year. Of this increased expenditure, the excavation provision is 50 per cent. more than last year. The hon. Gentleman will see, therefore, that we are supporting in a practical way our strong interest in these archaeological matters.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the delicate matter of Durrington Walls. That is outside the scope of the Bill as it has no connection with acknowledgment payments but relates to a possible breach of a preservation order. We are carefully investigating the circumstances of the case. There are conflicting reports of exactly what was done and in what circumstances the work was put in hand. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that until the facts are established I cannot say more than that the whole matter is being investigated.

To return to the main theme of the Bill, these ancient earthworks are familiar features of the countryside which our descendants would miss, but they are also repositories for scientific investigation into the very early days of our history. That so many have survived is a tribute to the pride and affection with which most owners and farmers look upon them.

However, in these days of intensive farming it has to be noted that they are an impediment to high productivity and efficiency, and it is in this light that this legislation has been produced, in the hope and expectation that it will meet an answering response from farmers and those growing trees or timber on their land. The Department's experience in negotiating with their representatives has been most encouraging.

We as a Department are very much aware of the Secretary of State's duty under the Ancient Monuments Acts in the preservation of ancient monuments. It is a duty that we carry out in co-operation with the local authorities, universities and learned societies of all kinds in many parts of the country.

I should like to pay tribute to the work of the distinguished members of the Field Monuments Committee which includes archaeologists, representatives of land using interests and also independent members. It was the committee's unanimous recommendations which were incorporated into the Bill which has received wide support in this House and in another place.

The implementation of those recommendations has been followed by universal acceptance of the proposals contained in this Measure by those bodies representing archaeologists, farmers, foresters and landowners. The hon. Gentleman asked whether the payments scheme would be effective. I should like to pay tribute to the co-operation of those representative bodies to which I have referred. I believe that that co-operation is a hopeful augury for the future, because it shows a strong sense of good will and a desire to make this system work effectively. I believe that a great deal of good will follow from this modest but useful Measure.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with an Amendment.