I once worked with a Project Manager whose stock response to all requests for more resources was uncompromising.
‘People live, people die, get over it,’ he’d grumble in his thick Scottish accent, like a Yorkshire man with all the generosity squeezed out of him.
When it came to the crunch this PM was one of the good guys, and could often be found arguing the case for more resources and more time if that were needed. But many a true word is said in jest, and the joke acknowledged an uncomfortable truth. What we want to do as archaeologists is limited by what our clients can reasonably afford to pay.
With that in mind I’d like to ask a simple question:
What happens to the polluter pays principle when the polluter can no longer afford to pay?
At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, commercial archaeology becomes a viable prospect when the state enforces an obligation to consider the potential impact of a proposed development on the archaeological heritage. This is enforced and supported through a legal or planning framework, with all the costs met by the developer. Developers have normally offset this increased cost against the profit levied from their final product, meeting their obligations as part of a wider social responsibility. But in the last six months we’ve seen a dramatic write-down in asset value to the point where commentators are speculating ‘what is the new normal?’ Where it was once normal to recover 10-20% profit on development projects is it now going to be normal to recover a profit of 1-2%?
If this is the new normal, it represents not just another turn in the economic cycle, but a restructuring of the economic order in a way that potentially no longer makes commercial archaeology viable. Rather than tinker with PPG 16 (the planning policy guidance notes underwriting decisions on the historic environment) might it be time for a radical rethink for how we undertake development-led archaeology? If society is tasked with achieving something for the common good, this activity can be carried out as a public service (the socialist approach) or alternatively activities can be left to the market, to be provided as services by suppliers (capitalist approach).
On the recent radio four programme on job losses in archaeology, breaking the financial link between developers and archaeologists was proposed as a solution by Yannis Hamilakis, clearly advocating the socialist approach, and argued against by Kenny Aitcheson, advocating the capitalist approach. With the collapse of the economic framework on which the polluter-pays principle is founded, I’d like to hear comment from those who think the present model is worth defending (and their reasons why), and those who’d like to tear the whole thing down and start again from scratch (and their plans for an alternative).