Sunday, 27 July 2008

Coping with the crunch: hard times are coming

It isn't yet clear whether we are currently going through an adjustment, a correction, a downturn, or a recession, but what is clear is that the good times are over for development. In this post I want to highlight some of the likely effects of a worsening economic climate on the practice of archaeology in the UK.

1 Less development means less archaeology. Housing is the first sector to be hit, but that will have a knock-on effect on infrastructure schemes and minerals; a poor economy will reduce the appetite for shop and industrial constructions; government income will fall and so capital projects will be curtailed. There will be fewer developments, and those that do go ahead will pay much more attention to marginal costs: it may be worthwhile reconfiguring a design to avoid triggering expensive archaeological mitigation works. 'Bonus' aspects of work like educational, display or publication will come under pressure if they are not a core planning requirement. Competition between archaeological contractors will increase, with a focus on price as the determinant.

2 Developers are exposed. Some will fail. Projects with phased programmes may see later phases stalled or abandoned. If they run out of money, some archaeological contractors won't get paid. Some companies will go bankrupt.

3 Archaeological employment will get harder. One way or another, a significant proportion of the current archaeological workforce will become surplus to requirements. The job marketplace will be full of people trying to get on board the surviving companies. In general, mobility of employment will increase, and as a result companies will draw back from long-term training and investment in staff development.

4 Curators will become laxer. When different planning authorities feel that they are competing against their neighbours to attract the few developers with money to invest in the local economy, they will be reluctant to 'put them off' by stringent conditions; the result will be a Dutch auction where L.A.s try to minimise the entry costs.

To summarise, if you're not worried you're not paying attention. The economic downturn threatens to wipe out many of the advances in commercial archaeological practice, if the profession lets it, and we know how good it is at looking after its interests.

But what can you do? I think the key first step is to reconsider the extent to which the interests of you and your employer coincide. How likely is it that in five years time, the company will still exists, and you will still be working for it?

How to protect your career

Get accredited. Get round to joining the IFA, or upgrading your membership. Go on accredited training courses. You need to have a portfolio of qualifications and experience that will make sense to other companies. This may mean you have to spend your own money. Do so.

Get noticed. Talk at conferences. Go to conferences and talk to other participants. Write articles for The Archaeologist, CBA Newsletter etc. Join the regional IFA group and go to meetings. This may mean you have to invest your own time. Do so.

Get ready to go. Think about other employers: what would you like your next job to be? Are there loose ends (old projects, publications) that you need to sort out? Update your cv and your CPD log. Get in touch with contacts elsewhere.

Pay attention. Listen out for economic forecasts, business news; check your company's financial statements. If you can jump ship three months before it all goes wrong, you'll be able to choose where you end up. If not, not.

How to protect your company

Prevention is better than cure, and the safest and best way to weather a recession is to ensure that your employer survives intact.

Deliver for your clients. On time, on cost, on quality. At least it won't be your fault if it all goes wrong. Just hope they've got another project coming along soon.

Don't exceed the task. Either by overperfoming the spec or by undertaking work in advance of formal instruction. Anything you do that doesn't get paid for is a cost the company will have to bear, if it can.

Be competitive. It's hard to insist on quality if others are charging less, but in the long run, there is only room for one cheap and cheerful bargain contractor. If that isn't going to be you, stick to quality.

Don't be proud. If another contractor wins a dig in your own office car park, live with it rather than revise your costing to make sure you do the work. If the work isn't making you money, it's a bad thing to be doing it.

Don't be sentimental. Managers have to sack people. It's their job. Keeping people on without paid work for them to do is a path to certain disaster: the company will fold and everyone will be out of a job.

Reduce waste. Try to minimise machine hire costs, travel, consumables, cabin hire ... the less money spent on these, the more there is for wages.

And in general:

keep positive!

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

What not to say at a client meeting


Your unit's evaluation has revealed well-preserved stratigraphy on the development site; there is a real possibility that the archaeological impact of the proposal will be enough for the application to be refused. So what should you say? Or more to the point, not say?

Well at least we managed to resolve the question of when the Town Ditch was finally filled in.

They don't care. It's not their job to care, and they don't. You're not there to sell archaeology; you're there to advise your clients. Even if you've spent the last ten years worrying about exactly this issue, now is not the time to say so. Tell you client, instead, that the evaluation has performed its function but has left them with a possible problem.

Perhaps you could get Professor Withington to comment?

Well, yes, if you want them to think that you don't know what you're doing or what you've found. Most developers will at some point have come across a local professor with no understanding of the planning process and an axe to grind (hydrology, bats, electromagnetism) and they will hardly jump for joy at the suggestion. It is in any case a bad move: the credibility of 'authorities' in a public forum may dissolve under astute questioning ("When did you last consult the SMR?" is a good one), and for all you know he has been writing mad letters to the council since the Thatcher era. Even if you do think he may have something to say, he should be YOUR advisor, not your clients. If he is advising your clients, what are they paying you for?

The archaeology is too precious: you'll have to re-think.

Sometimes you do have to say this. But under the present framework, it's up to the planners to say this, not you, most of the time. The judgement of whether preservation by record is an appropriate response is always a finely balanced one.

I'm sure you'll get permission

Don't say this unless you really are sure. Your clients are used to the vagaries of the planning process, and ill-advised certainty at this point brings potential liability (they may go around taking up options on leases on the basis that the development will be going ahead).

What you should say

Provide a forward plan: what's next? Meeting the case officer's a good place to start.
Look at contingency plans.
Suggest changes to design to minimise risk and cost.

Above all: be the advisor they want: be clear, well informed, judicial, and open.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Commercial archaeology and the ethics of development

"These are my principles - and if you don't like them, well, I have others" - Groucho Marx.

Archaeologists have a very strong ethical sense. Despite what Indiana Jones and Bonekickers imply, it's not about the fame or the treasure: it's about the Knowledge. Having signed up to the disinterested service of knowledge, archaeologists are hypercritical of any of their colleagues who appears to be swayed by other concerns. It is hardly surprising, then, that the development of commercial archaeology has involved some self-analysis, soul-searching and mud-slinging. Especially the mud-slinging: it is slightly bewildering to see the debate about the merits of the IfA as a professional body which seems to judge its performance solely on its ability to police and punish those whose practice falls below the required standard. It is important, granted, but there are other things to consider.

I have commented on the impact of PPG16 in the UK on archaeological attitudes before: the present, over-prescriptive, over-curated, arrangements for developer-funded work can be seen as a response to the deep distrust of a situation where financial or other pressure might push excavators into misrepresenting their findings.

You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
British journalist

But, seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there's
no occasion to

Humbert Wolfe

Irish archaeology is now in the process of commercialisation, and this has led to similar issues being raised. Maggie Ronayne has published a lengthy paper (pdf) in the journal Public Archaeology reflecting on the archaeological response to the M3 motorway and its effect on Tara and other sites. Her argument can be summarised as: an inadequate supervisory framework for the archaeological investigation, put in place by metaphorically and literally corrupt politicians, and implemented by metaphorically corrupt government archaeologists, led to fieldwork of varying standards by well-meaning individual archaeologists whose results were watered down to ensure that the development proceeded as intended. Specifically she draws on the experience of her sister, who was a licensee for part of the evaluation (p. 121), who hoped that if enough important archaeology were to be found on the route "it might stop the motorway".

Similar statements have been made about the Thornborough Henges, the Rose Theatre, and the A34 Newbury bypass. They are based on a misconception of the role of the archaeologist in assessing impact. The archaeologist is being asked to determine what the imopact might be, by characterising the nature of the archaeological resource affected, and assigning a value of significance to that resource and the level of impact. The conclusion of a study may be (as it was with the M3 initial desk-based assessment) that the proposal would have major impacts on very important archaeological sites. But that is not to say that the development should proceed. The relative weighting given to archaeology alongside other factors (such as economic benefits, ecology, and employment) is not an archaeological question: it is a question for the wider community, society, or their appointed or elected representatives. Ronayne argues that the local community's wishes were ignored: that is a democratic deficit, not an archaeological one.

The question most often arises at the field evaluation stage, when developers ask nervously "Is it important? Nationally important? Will it be Scheduled?": to which the answer is usually "Yes, maybe, no". The recent news that 20% of Scheduled Monuments are already at risk suggests that even if the answer to the last question is "Yes" there may be wiggle room. In many ways it would be easier to manage the resource coherently if protection were more draconian: it would certainly be easier to advise clients if the position were clearer. PPG16 starts form the point that preservation in situ is the preferred option; preservation by record may be an acceptable alternative. This results in the paradoxical situation where mediocre archaeology found on development sites is carefully protected while sites like Stonehenge are dug up by students as part of a media exercise.

It remains the case that the ascription of value is the most important and most contentious part of any evaluation exercise. It is generally poor tactics for a developer to seek to underplay the archaeological value affected, since it calls into question the validity of the evaluation exercise: it is much better to say "yes, it's important, I realise that: this is what I want to do about it". Which is not to say that there aren't silly developers who think that they can override any concerns by shouting loud enough or relying on political pressure. Although there have been attempts to systematise the assignment of value, it remains a highly individual and subjective process; it is common, for example, for 'sexy' archaeology (Roman and Bronze Age) to be scored higher than industrial and recent sites.

It is best for commercial archaeologists to see themselves as barristers for their clients: sometimes you have to tell them to plead guilty.

Update: Moore Group blog on Ronayne and the M3

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