HC Deb 24 June 1988 vol 135 cc1437-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Alan Howarth.]

2.30 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate the subject of the protection of Southwark's archaeological heritage. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environmemt will be especially sympathetic as he, like me, represents a south London constituency.

Many people are excited by the opportunity of preserving the heritage of what is rapidly being discovered to be one of the most interesting archaeological areas in Britain. The concern that motivated the debate is to ensure that hon. Members and the Government now act to protect and preserve this archaeological treasure trove.

Southwark is one of this country's oldest settlements. It was a key settlement because two highways—Stane street from the south coast and Watling street from Dover—converged and became at Southwark the crossing point of the Thames, where London bridge is now situated. Southwark was the southern suburb of Londinium. The excavations are revealing much of great importance about Southwark and its past.

In a few minutes, I shall make specific propositions about what needs to be done, but, first, I shall identify the two key issues. To protect Southwark's heritage we need, first, money and, secondly, time.

I shall list the sites that have emerged as being of particular importance to show the breadth and diversity of our heritage. Bermondsey abbey was a Cluniac priory of the 11th century and was one of the major, if not the major, Cluniac settlements in England. It was a huge abbey located at the junction of what is now Abbey street and Tower bridge road. Yesterday I returned with my younger brother who is a Southwark councillor for the Abbey ward, to the part of the site being excavated and we looked with archaeologists at the exciting excavations that are going on at that borough council-owned site.

The Bricklayers Arms site is almost immediately outside my front door. It is in private ownership and is about to be developed for housing. Recently, an article appeared in The Standard headed, Official: Bermondsey really is prehistoric. Archaeologists have discovered the first positive evidence that prehistoric man once inhabited inner London. A team from the Museum of London has found wooden structures and tools dating back to between 2000 and 3000 BC in an area which until now has been something of a mystery. I do not think that the area has been a mystery to many of us, but archaeologically that has been the case. The site is the former Bricklayers Arms goods depot. The museum's archaeologist, Michael Hammerson, said: This is the first real proof of what might be regarded as a permanent habitation. It does suggest a quite intensive occupation of the area. It is an important find and there is no doubt whatever that other unexplored parts of greater London have a similar or even greater potential for transforming our knowledge of the region's history. Planning permission was granted last week by the council to Ideal Homes, and any day now there may be a large-scale private housing development.

Hay's wharf is a large site that is also in private ownership. It is owned by St. Martins' property company. The site is opposite the Tower of London and adjacent to Tower bridge. There have been amazing and wonderful discoveries on that site in recent weeks that have rightly commanded great press attention. First, there was the discovery that the Rosary palace of Edward II might have been built on that site. It is also probable that the house of Sir John Fastolf was built there. Shakespeare took the name to create one of his greatest characters. His residence was moated and contained gardens and pools. I was on that very site yesterday in hot sunshine. I spent the whole morning there and at the Bermondsey Abbey site. They have found wonderful things there—for example, a leather male vestment, probably from the middle ages, and children's shoes in perfect condition because they have been preserved by the moist clay. They have also found a piece of stained glass. I wish that I could have brought it to the House, but I could not do so because they dared not allow it to leave their possession. It is an example of very early stained glass that contains a beautiful representation of a lion. In all probability it came from a window of the royal palace on that site. They have also found fascinating timber work and foundation work that identify the pattern of what must have been the early moat and dockyard.

The developers, St. Martins' property company, have given the archaeologists six months to explore the site. They are using that time to great advantage, but one needs to ask how much time should be given to them and how much guaranteed protection there should be for the site. The developer is not compelled to give the archaeologists that amount of time. The amount of time that has been given is quite generous and I applaud the company for that. A public inquiry is now scheduled, which may lead to more time being allowed to the archaeologists.

The last of the major sites is the Courage brewery site, just off Southwark bridge road. That led to a long article in The Times on 11 May, headed The Docklands of the Caesars. It said: The latest piece of Roman London to emerge from the mud could be the most significant archaeological find for years—yet may be lost to new building. What was discovered during Easter weekend this year was a warehouse, 15 ft, by at least 30 ft. It was a wooden structure and the first suggestion that the Southwark side of the Roman Thames was an international commercial port before AD 200. I shall read what was said to make clear the excitement that the importance of the site generated. The warehouse was found by a team of Museum of London archaeologists, led by Harvey Sheldon, whom I know well and to whom I have often spoken. The British Museum's Romano-British curator, Dr. Potter, who is an international authority on the subject, was ecstatic about the discovery and said that he had never seen anything like it: 'It is terribly important. To find a Second Century wooden warehouse…with the floors as perfectly preserved as any modern building, it is quite extraordinary. We now know there were a lot of Roman settlements in the Southwark area, and I would think that you're getting a whole series of warehouses. It is emerging as a sort of Docklands of Roman times. The building was constructed using the finest carpentry skills: no nails have been found. The floor, made from great oak sheets, has been preserved, along with a ramp down which barrels would have been rolled to just below ground level, where they could be kept cool. The floor is surrounded by the sloping remains of wooden walls, with mortice-andtenon joints still intact.' Potter enthused: 'The simple fact is that we need to know more, more, more. When you've got a state of preservation like that, it offers an exceptional chance of answering a lot of long-posed questions.' I have taken an interest in these things for many years, and not only in Southwark, but that site prompted a reawakening of my interest. I wrote to the noble Lord Caithness and received a courteous reply. I wrote to English Heritage, too. That site needs only another six weeks or £40,000 worth of work to ensure that what can be found and preserved, is dealt with.

I shall now list the other sites, and then discuss the politics and policies that relate to them: Phoenix wharf is in private hands; Platform wharf, by Cherry Garden pier in Rotherhithe, is in the control of the LDDC, which has so far done a good job for Southwark archaeology. The previously lost palace of Edward III is there. There is a chance to preserve it and open it to the public, thanks to the LDDC. There is an archaeologically important site in the grounds of Guy's hospital. Yet to be discovered is the original site of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, which is thought to be on a larger site currently being developed. There are various exciting discoveries on Southwark street.

The length of this list shows the importance of Southwark in British archaeology. It is all the responsibility of English Heritage, or the Historical Buildings and Monuments Commission, as it is more formally known. The House of Commons Select Committee on the Environment, in its first report of 1986–87, to which the Government responded on New Year's Eve last year, examined ways in which English Heritage and the Government should be more responsive.

There clearly needs to be guaranteed protection for areas of such significance. At present, if a site is scheduled, a delay is allowed before development can go ahead, but there is no guarantee of money. The danger, in areas such as Southwark, of waiting for sites to be scheduled lies in the rapid pace of development in the regeneration of the inner city. All sites must be dealt with in time, so it is vital that time and money are provided for publicly and privately developed sites.

The Courage site is in Southwark council's hands. For reasons that I will not go into now, the council has a tight budget. Its leader is supportive of the archaeological rescue operation. If Southwark has no available money we must none the less ensure that it does not lose the opportunity of co-operating—as the landlord—with the Government in getting the archaeological work done. The same applies to any local authority or public authority, such as the LDDC. The same applies also to private sites. Apart from a four-month delay in certain circumstances, there is no statutory guarantee that the developers such as St. Martin's at the Hay's wharf site will carry out archaeological rescue. I have been given a letter which makes it clear that some developers resist any such rescue proposal. They are asked whether development can be deferred and often say that that is not worth while financially. Then the site in question is lost for all time.

I quote a letter from Regalian, developers in south London, to the Museum of London: I have considered all that was said at our meeting and I regret to say that we are not swayed by the arguments in favour of developer funding. We believe that this type of work which is undertaken for local or national purposes should be paid for out of local or national funds. So, although there are some powers in planning law to impose planning conditions on private developers, they might well say that the profit motive forced them to go ahead—and the rescue operation cannot be secured.

The same sometimes applies to public bodies. The Department of Transport often finds itself involved with archaeologically important sites, but in 1987 it donated £100,000 to English Heritage—hardly enough to cover any of the sites.

I propose, first, that Southwark, or, more narrowly, north Southwark, which happens to be conterminous with my constituency, should be urgently designated an area of outstanding archaeological importance. I know that the Government are carrying out a review, but I earnestly hope that, as this is not one of those debates where we are just going through the motions, it can be completed quickly and the area added to the five already listed and designated in Britain.

Secondly, there should be no differentiation between public and private sites, because they should both be eligible for Government funding through English Heritage as the appropriate agency, but the funding should be increased to ensure that the necessary money is forthcoming.

Thirdly, financing to English Heritage should be increased. One of the tragedies is that although it is doing some good work, much of its resources are being spent on post-excavation activity and not on the major recovery activity. Bids in 1985–86 for excavation work totalled £3.8 million, but the grant was only £0.3 million. Its budget is £7.2 million, but it is clear that it needs more funds as it rejects an enormous number of sites for listing.

It has been assessed that 10,000 archaeological sites are being destroyed countrywide. An article in The Independent on 8 January, only six months ago, stated: According to the Council for British Archaeology there are now about 15,000 archaeological sites being destroyed without excavation throughout the country through lack of funds". I hope the Minister will accept the urgency for more funding and more control to allow time for the rescue operations to be put in train. Above all, the Government need to reconsider the special and urgent case for Southwark archaeology to be protected.

People may ask, "Is it equally important to preserve and protect the archaeology as it is to build houses, hospitals and schools?" The local paper that the Minister and I share—the South London Press—recently polled a random sample of local people from south London. Its headline stated: You have your say on keeping heritage alive. There was not one person who did not think that preserving the heritage was vital, because the heritage of Southwark, as of any other community, is what people treasure and want to know more about. It should be preserved and the Government must act immediately to ensure that it is.

2.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Colin Moynihan)

If the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has seen The Guardian today, he will not be surprised to see me here rather than at the launch of the Scottish unleaded petrol week. It is the stamp of bad journalism to report only part of a story. He will be the first to understand that my priorities as a Minister should at the Dispatch Box. I am grateful to his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) for standing in for me in Scotland. It is good that there is an all-party approach towards persuading more motorists to use unleaded petrol.

I am also grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting his case so fully. I am sorry that the problems that beset the world of hooliganism precluded me from joining him yesterday morning. I promise him that I would have much preferred to view the archaeological sites to which he referred than do the work that I was, in fact, undertaking. I make it clear straight away that the Government attach great importance to this country's extraordinarily rich and varied archaeological heritage. We are fully conscious that our present civilisation is only possible because of the achievements of our predecessors over many generations. If we ignore this part of our heritage, we deny ourselves an important understanding of how this country has become what it is, and archaeological remains and discoveries are a constant source of wonder and interest to many of us. Historic Southwark clearly played an important part in the history of London, and the hon. Gentleman is justly proud of that. We all know, I am sure, of Chaucer starting his famous pilgrimage to Canterbury from the Tabard inn at Southwark; of Shakespeare and his companions drawing the crowds at the Globe theatre, which is to be reconstructed. We can see Southwark cathedral standing proudly by the river, surrounded by the borough market and the Victorian railway line, to testify to continuing values in a constantly changing world.

In recent years archaeologists have shown us that Southwark has even more to offer. As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, there is increasing evidence that historic Southwark, far from being the less-favoured south bank, where nothing happened, is busy and alive. Indeed, it is largely our present wave of development in the City, following the big bang, that is spreading over into the south. That is showing us that Roman London did exactly the same. Perhaps we can seek to draw a parallel between Southwark's past and its present. It is certainly good to see new developments coming to the south of the river, with the prospect of future prosperity, which our descendants may look on with as much respect as we regard our medieval heritage.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly point out, we now have evidence that prehistoric men once lived on the Bricklayers Arms site—one of the first signs of human habitation in inner London, and some of us are becoming increasingly aware that once, long before that, hippos roamed over what is now Trafalgar square. We find increasing signs of the Roman occupation, at the Bricklayers Arms site and on the waterfront at the old Courage brewery site. We see signs of extensive medieval occupation, for example, in the influential Bermondsey abbey—the site of which has recently been scheduled—and the reputed palace of Edward II at Hay's wharf, London Bridge City. This is a significant batch of archaeological discoveries, in a short time, for any area or any constituency.

Now we come to the difficult problems. They are both philosophical and practical. How much of this archaeological heritage can we, as a country, preserve? Indeed, how much should we preserve? Which takes precedence—the needs of the present or the needs of the irreplaceable, fragile heritage? How far will future generations wish us to preserve their past for them? Who should pay for the archaeological work?

It is sometimes said that we need more development and more conservation. There is a genuine dilemma here. The pressures for development have never been greater than they are today. Equally, the public awareness of the desirability of conservation and the value of the heritage of attractive countryside and historic buildings has never been higher. Archaeology gives rise to particular problems; the increasing sophistication of archaeological technique means that finds may be discovered which, perhaps, a generation ago, might not have been made, and such finds may now be interpreted with greater accuracy.

That is an exciting advance in knowledge and skill. It is also, to be frank, a practical problem for the developer. A listed building can be seen and identified, and its value assessed. The archaeological find is unpredictable. It is probably not exaggerating to suggest that in historic urban areas each new development site may overlie valuable archaeological remains, and there may be two very different attitudes to that fact.

Government must, as so often, seek to find a balance between the different sides. We have the mechanism for protecting archaelogical sites and monuments by placing them on the Secretary of State's schedule of ancient monuments, compiled under the Ancient Monuments and Archeological Areas Act 1979. These are, by definition, monuments of national importance and, because of that, the Secretary of State keeps for himself the power of granting or withholding the scheduled monument consent which must be obtained before any works are carried out which would affect or damage such monuments. As I said, we have recently scheduled Bermondsey abbey, because of the considerable remains there and the importance of the abbey to medieval London.

Scheduling, however, does not mean that the monument must be left untouched for all time. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that in many cases that would not be in the monument's best interests, for often the work for which scheduled monument consent may be sought will be desirable repairs to the fabric. The great majority of applications for scheduled monument consent are granted, although conditions may be attached to them. The procedure does, however, ensure that a close look is taken at the effects of the proposals on the monument and the relative merits of allowing it to be altered, developed, investigated before development or preservation in its entirety. Each case is different, and I cannot—indeed, I must not—prejudge what the decision would be on any individual application.

Scheduling will be appropriate only for a fairly small proportion of the known monuments. English Heritage is embarking on a programme of assessing all the known monuments and considering on a comprehensive basis which ones merit scheduling. We expect that, as a result, it will recommend a large number of additional schedulings to us, but the total proportion will still remain small. I am sure that it is right that, since scheduling imposes additional restrictions over what a landowner can do with his land, it should be imposed only where it can be justified archaeologically by the application of stringent criteria.

Other monuments are not left without protection, but it is right that monuments or sites of more local importance should be considered primarily at the local level. We have made it clear, however, in a circular to local authorities that where development would be likely to affect an ancient monument, whether that monument is scheduled or unscheduled, the desirability of preserving the monument and its setting is a material consideration to be taken into account in determining planning applications. Indeed, that approach has been backed by the courts. Although planning considerations are many and varied, and the process of balancing them all, each with their due weight, can sometimes demand the skills of an expert juggler, the archaeological considerations must be included in the balancing act.

There is a third mechanism for taking account of archaeological considerations which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, although at present its practical extent is comparatively limited. This is the designation of areas of archaeological importance—AAIs for short—introduced by the 1979 Act which I have already mentioned. Five areas have so far been designated—the historic town centres of Canterbury, Chester, Exeter, Hereford and York.

The significance of designation—although a local authority may designate, such a designation takes effect only if confirmed by the Secretary of State—is that there is then an opportunity for a nominated investigating authority to enter a site and carry out archaeological investigations for a period of up to four and a half months before development can take place. I know that many elements in the archaeological world value this legislative provision and would like to see it extended. English Heritage is currently reviewing the operation of the scheme so far. I must point out, however, that the AAI procedure does not allow for preservation of finds or monuments—it allows only a breathing space, effectively for rescue archaeology. In that respect, before we designate more such areas we perhaps need to think through carefully and, I agree, as speedily as possible how we should best protect archaeological remains under towns—bearing in mind, as I said earlier, that there will be some areas in which one may expect valuable finds every time one puts in a spade—while at the same time not putting unreasonable restrictions on much needed development.

All the points that the hon. Gentleman raised were significant in this respect and I shall bring them to the attention of English Heritage. Perhaps I may also ask him to pursue in conversation or in a meeting with me any other ideas that he may have, so that we can ensure that they are fully considered in the current review. I emphasise and respect the need for there to be no hesitation or foot-dragging in the consideration of these very important details so that a decision can he reached as soon as possible. The hon. Gentleman will also accept that digging everything up may not always be the best solution; that may be better left to the more advanced techniques of future generations.

With regard to where the money comes from, I should point out straight away that, as the hon. Gentleman knows full well, we have no bottomless pot of gold. For the avoidance of doubt, I should put straight a misapprehension which sometimes occurs. The scheduling of monuments and the designation of an AAI does not bring with it any financial resources to the owner or authority concerned. It is up to the investigating authority to decide its own priorities as to what, within the AAI, it wishes and has the resources to investigate, and to stimulate local developers' or authorities' interest in the work being done and its importance. AAI designation is an opportunity for the archaeologist—not a burden. There is no immutable law as to who should pay for archaeological investigations, and nor should there be. The archaeological heritage belongs to all of us, individuals and companies and local and central government, and it is right that each sector, public and private, should be willing to contribute as appropriate.

It is a hard fact of life that we all—central Government, local government, firms and individuals—have to determine our own priorities. Fortunate indeed are the bodies or individuals whose resources are adequate to meet all the demands that they can anticipate. I am extremely encouraged, however, to see how far the private sector is responding to the needs of the archaeological heritage by providing facilities, time and financial support for archaeological investigations. Indeed, I understand that a recent report by the British Archaeological Trust shows that public and private sector developers contributed some £3.37 mill ion for rescue archaeology in Britain in 1986–87, in contrast to a mere £58,000 in 1978–79. Much credit here must go to the constructive relationships that have been forged between developers and archaeologists, which have borne fruit in the code of practice issued in 1986 and sponsored jointly by the British Property Federation and the standing conference of archaeological unit managers. The code not only encourages developers to provide financial support to enable worthwhile archaeological investigations to take place but provides valuable and sensible guidelines for mutual co-operation and communication between the two. I believe that central Government should be fully involved, and we achieve that by looking to English Heritage to provide financial help with rescue archaeology. English Heritage is constrained by the need to determine its own internal priorities as well as by its total grant in aid from the Department, which itself must be balanced against other demands on the public expenditure purse.

The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to Bermondsey abbey and the Courage brewery site, both owned by Southwark council, and suggested that they were examples of cases in which more central Government funding might be appropriate. With regard to the Courage site, I understand that the Greater London council, before its abolition, gave £120,000 for archaeological work there and that the proposed development was to be undertaken jointly by Southwark and the GLC. English Heritage, since its establishment, has given a further £71,000 and has committed £75,000 more for post-excavation work. That is indeed a generous contribution. At Bermondsey abbey, too, the excavations which have been going on for several years have been financed generously by English Heritage.

I will bring to the hon. Gentleman's attention more detail on important issues such as the Bricklayers Arms and London Bridge City sites and other areas that he mentioned. Suffice it to say that he and I share the same conviction as readers of our local paper about the importance that we should attach to this work. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the thrust of his remarks is well taken and we shall pursue the individual points that he has raised. I hope that through further discussion outside the Chamber we can reach a satisfactory conclusion in the interests of both the hon. Gentleman and his constituents.

The Motion, having been made at half-past Two o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Three o'clock.