Heritage assets and strategic land acquisition

Strategic land acquisition – consider heritage assets: part 1

The benefits of a proactive approach to heritage and archaeology

With the enormous pressures we are facing in 21st century Britain to meet the housing demands of an increased and continually expanding population, identification of sites suitable to fulfil local housing needs is an urgent task.

Strategic land managers throughout the country are busily engaged in the search for suitable sites, whether former industrialised brownfield sites or previously undeveloped greenfield sites. Once taken through the planning system and once consent has been obtained these sites provide house builders with a long term supply of development land.

However, the increased demands on land for housing is accompanied by considerable impacts on the county’s historic environment.  The landscape of the British Isles, including its towns and cities, is very ancient and contains a palimpsest of human activity and settlement stretching from the earliest prehistoric times through to World War II. It would be a truism to say that the more houses built, the more the evidence of our collective past is physically eroded.

That physical loss is of course mitigated by the opportunities presented through development for examining and recording the tangible evidence left by our ancestors and it should be remembered that in terms of our knowledge and understanding of Britain’s past we are the richer for nearly three decades of developer-funded archaeological investigation.

The historic environment

Because Britain is so rich in terms of its historic environment which comprises not only multi-period below-ground archaeological remains but also multi-period above ground remains, including an abundant stock of ancient buildings and monuments, the potential for the presence of any of these heritage assets within a site identified for housing should never be discounted.

Archaeological remains are unpredictable and indiscriminate. They can appear in all sorts of contexts which may at face value appear unpromising locations for the survival of archaeological features. 

For example, there will be nothing upon viewing the buddleia-invaded hardstanding and dilapidated buildings of a former industrial site to suggest there could be anything present of archaeological or heritage value.

However, beneath the ground, between foundations and concrete stanchions there could be islands of archaeological preservation not only of earlier historic industrial activity but of past human activity pre-dating even that. It might also be that at least some of the extant buildings on a brownfield site are of heritage value despite their derelict appearance.

Similarly, the gently rolling pastureland marked down as the location for future housing or urban expansion could conceal multi-period, multi-phase evidence of past human activity and settlement. Of course, the larger the site identified the greater the chances of encountering archaeological remains.

The proximity to listed buildings or scheduled monuments

Also to be considered is whether potential housing sites identified as part of the strategic land process contain and/or are near to designated heritage assets such as listed buildings or scheduled monuments.

The UK has literally thousands of such designated heritage features which are statutorily protected and whilst listed buildings are at least visible some scheduled monuments are buried sites providing no discernible clues to their presence. 

Taking all of the above into consideration, it would not be unreasonable to suggest a proactive approach to heritage and archaeology is taken earlier rather than later in the process ideally at the strategic site identification stage or at the latest prior to land acquisition.

Assessing the potential for a site to contain buried archaeological remains, including scheduled monuments, or to establish if the site is in the vicinity of listed buildings, especially those listed at Grade I and II*, can save time and costs later on in the planning process.  

It is, in fact, not difficult for house builders to assess the potential risks arising from heritage and archaeology during the site identification process. A rapid and cost-effective solution can be provided in the form of a heritage constraints report which will serve to highlight any potential issues with a particular site. It will identify the presence of designated heritage assets such as scheduled monuments and listed buildings but will also assess the likelihood of buried archaeological remains being present and, where sufficient data is already available, provide an indication of the possible date and significance of that archaeology.

Constraints report

A constraints report is in essence an early warning tool. It allows house builders to make meaningful and informed decisions about how to proceed with land acquisition and about how to manage and minimise the risks associated with the presence of heritage assets once land has been purchased and the formal planning process entered into.

Part two will follow shortly…