Here is a short report on my perspective on the IfA recession seminar. This was held at the Museum of London Docklands on 16th February 2009, and was intended to provide a forum for discussion of the various issues which are affecting the profession at the present time.
The meeting was chaired by Taryn Dixon (Managing Director of Museum of London Archaeology) who introduced proceedings – the aim of the day was to try and identify key priorities for the IfA collective effort for the sector during the recession. As well as continuing to protect the heritage itself, protection of people working in the heritage sector was also important.
The first speaker was Noel Fojut of Historic Scotland (HS), who described the HS reaction to the recession. Beginning by outlining the HS remit, Noel emphasised that HS was there to protect the heritage assets themselves rather than employees in the sector per se; any work in the future will be through existing traditional roles rather than new ones. Happily historic environment Policy in Scotland was now at the same level as planning Policy rather than subordinate to it; the new SPP23 was a compression of existing Scottish guidance, and would be supported by a raft of advice which HS would deliver. Scotland had seen a 25% fall in specific planning applications but an increase in strategic applications (eg. EIAs). The lack of speculative building work was leading to a reduction in turnover for many commercial archaeological organisations, and a resultant decline in profit. Noel urged the profession as a whole to:
- “be more pungent”... using the example of sewage as a building requirement that developers could not cut back on because of the recession, he suggested that archaeologists should insist on their role in a similar way: namely an essential component of the development process which should not be cut back because of recession.
- think more about values (eg. social, environmental) rather than costs
- embrace the positive aspects for the historic environment (eg. the re-use of historic buildings)
- invest in skills training, especially conservation-related skills
Standards were actually more likely to be at risk at the end of the recession than during it, when the rapid expansion of work would be taking place when fewer experienced practitioners were around. One of HS’s roles will be to reinforce the rigour of decisions taken by local authority curators.
Noel concluded by remarking that he anticipated HS funding was going to be cut by around 25%, and set out some of the priorities for project funding by HS under these restrictions. Large projects solely funded by HS were more likely to be cut than smaller partnership projects where HS funding, although at a relatively low level, was key to the continuation of the project or indeed the partner organisation. Particular emphasis was going to be on community and volunteer projects. Some new projects would inevitably be cancelled, and these would include proposals to deal with existing backlogs.
The second speaker, slightly delayed by his train, was Kenneth Aitchison, the IfA’s Head of Projects and Professional Development. He outlined the basic facts and figures (as far as they were known) of the current recession, beginning with a brief overview of the development of the profession since PPG16. Drawing largely from his recently-published paper in Antiquity, as well as last-year’s "Profiling the Profession" survey, Kenny provided a cogent analysis of the effects of the recent downturn on the profession. Looking also at data recorded by the Archaeological Investigations Project (AIP), it was clear that 2007-2008 had seen a marked downturn in the number of archaeological projects being undertaken. This decline had to some extent begun with the property downturn but was being exacerbated by the slide into recession in the second half of 2008. Year on year the AIP had seen a decline of between 6% and 7% of archaeological projects.
Employment in archaeology had also been affected. It was now recognised that the ‘Profiling the Profession’ survey had taken place at the “crest of the wave” of developer-funded archaeology. Indeed the date for which archaeological organisations were asked to submit their returns was Monday 13th August 2007; on Friday 10 August 2007, the FTSE-100 index fell by nearly 4%, its greatest single-day loss for over four years. This marked the onset of the credit crunch, already being reflected in land registry figures and other indicators.
At that time there were 6,865 people employed in archaeology in the UK. By the 1st October this figure had fallen to 6,735, and by 1st January this year the number stood at 6390. This represents a fall of around 5% of all jobs in archaeology – however for commercial archaeology the decline is much higher, around 8.6%. This means around 1 in 12 jobs in commercial archaeology were lost last year.
The IfA will repeat their January survey in April 2009, and again each quarter.
The third speaker was Dave Allen from the Prospect trade union, who provided an analysis of the industrial relations setting. He noted that employment tribunals have seen something like a 25% increase in activity in the last year as a result of employers trying to avoid their statutory redundancy obligations (this was all employers, not specifically archaeological ones). Prospect was particularly keen to see good management practice being adhered to on the issue of redundances, both voluntary and compulsory. Dave pointed out that the long-term danger of the current financial crisis is the loss of skills to the profession as a whole through redundancies, and in particular the loss of specialist skills. He was keen to see some flexibility from employers on these longer-term issues, such as consideration of contracts for when people were laid off, so that they could return to work in the future – after the recession.
Propsect acknowledged that the reduced volume of work would mean that some redundancies and even organisational failures would be inevitable. Therefore Prospect was keen to retain a “sense of realism” and was not going to try and save each and every job in the sector. Rather it would adopt a pragmatic, positive and constructive approach to working with employers.
Arguably at the opposite end of the spectrum, but in fact sharing much common ground, was the fourth speaker, Roland Smith from FAME. He also acknowledged the need for everyone to be “open, honest and realistic” about the situation. FAME members had seen a significant drop in the volume of new work – housing and mineral extraction being particularly badly affected. There had been a big impact so far on fieldwork projects, but the downturn is yet to move on to other areas. The IfA JIS and the BAJR websites suggested that there are presently no new jobs in commercial archaeology; moreover he felt that future job losses will be inevitable. The market is extremely price-sensitive, especially at present; other aspects by which organisations could distinguish themselves (such as quality, delivery, reliability and so-on) were now less of a factor than formerly.
Roland predicted industry losses of up to 30% in the commercial sector. There was a high probability that some organisations will go out of business – and this would be as much as a result of cash- and credit-flow issues as empty order books. This had huge consequences for post-excavation and archiving of current projects. It was also a possibility that terms and conditions of employment would also worsen, as in other areas of the economy.
FAME would survey its members about the current situation. It urged member organisations to continue to invest in training and skills development. FAME would work closely with EH and ALGAO to ensure that standards are maintained for fieldwork and post-excavation; this would also involve FAME’s continued commitment to raising barriers to entry to the profession.
Roland identified three key areas where FAME could help the sector emerge from recession.
- Input into Planning Policy development in the coming months and years
- Continuing to ensure high standards and good practice were maintained (including greater regulation of the profession)
- Providing a commitment to skills and training
The final speaker for the morning was Dave Bachelor of English Heritage (EH). He outlined the wide range of responsibilities which EH had as a government agency – rather like its sister body north of the border. EH had a primary responsibility for the protection of heritage assets – and of course this included a wide range of buildings, sites and artefacts as well as archaeology per se. As a result the presentation was talking about the historic environment sector as a whole rather than just archaeology. EH was working closely with other government departments, such as DCMS, CLG and so-on, as well as Natural England, the Highways Agency and the Ministry of Defence.
For the local authority sector the “crest of the wave” for archaeological development control seemed to be 2006-2007, since then the conservation side has come down by around 5% or so. However the high point for planning applications was actually 2008, and Listed Building applications have in fact increased in some areas. Part of EH’s role in the recession might be to “stiffen the resolve” of planning authorities where they might waver in applying archaeological conditions in the face of economic pressure.
Although making clear that there was no chance of bailing out failing commercial businesses, EH would try to ensure that vulnerable projects would be protected in the event of catastrophe where possible – such as ensuring the post-excavation work could be completed.
EH itself had seen a drop in income from public visits to sites, as well as pressures on its government funding stream and so was not itself immune from the wider situation. Resources would be focused strategically. For example in driving through those elements of HPR which were still attainable despite the disappointment of the Queen’s Speech, and in particular in funding support for HERs at local authority level. “English Heritage can help” but it needs information and advance intelligence from the profession in order to do so.
The recession has brought some existing issues into sharper focus – eg. planning, delivery, skills etc. One particular issue was in the supply of some conservation materials (such as lime), and the decline of skills in the conservation sector. Three main areas stood out:
- Skills. This was clearly an issue but at present there was not enough data to show the impacts of the recession on the skills base and what skills we need going forward. Otherwise standards are likely to fall during the upturn. EH was looking to work with the higher education sector to deliver appropriately trained undergraduates and postgraduates.
- Archives. EH is aware of the issues with archives of abandoned projects, but this is a “legal minefield”. However they are trying to produce guidance to ensure the survival of archives and information from them.
- EH Projects. Continuing projects will be carried on, including characterisation and HEEP-funded projects, as well as work on EH’s own estate.
Lunch consisted of sandwiches and orange juice.
The first speaker after lunch was Alastair Dryburgh, CEO of Akenhurst Consultants. Alastair saw the recession as a “challenge to leadership”, and in particular leaders needed to provide plausible vision, confidence and hope for their organisations. Actions needed to be justified, even though actions might be unpalatable. Drawing on the work of Michael Porter, Alastair suggested that any business needed to take one of three strategic directions on pricing:
- differentiated – stand out with a qualitatively different product
- niche – highly specialised
- cost-leadership – cheapest
...and stick to it. In an open and challenging presentation, discussion passed between Alastair and the audience, and issues were raised about the peculiar nature of the archaeological marketplace. For instance the quality of the archaeological product is rarely determined by the client who pays, and there is a substantial public benefit component to the heritage sector which is not factored in to conventional business analyses. The issue of barriers to entry to the profession was also raised.
The second part of Alastair’s presentation looked at the relationship between costs and pricing, and the value of specialist expertise. Such specialist activities could be of great value to potential clients and could therefore generate greater income and profit. Alastair also argued that cutbacks could be a false economy – any expenditure is an investment decision... it is possible to spend more on overhead costs to produce a return but the question is where in the business to invest? Businesses needed to understand where they made money and where they lost it. He gave several examples of projects and companies with substantial order books but sometimes made up of 30% or 40% of projects which were unprofitable. Many organisations had a "long tail" of unproductive projects, and undertook misguided cost cutting based on poor information.
Many clients were not worth having if their projects consistently cost more to the organisation than they should. One key action to survival was to think of "firing customers" rather than "firing staff".
After a short tea break, Mike Heyworth (of the CBA) spoke on behalf of the Archaeology Training Forum (ATF). Mike began by stressing how archaeology was a “people-business”, in which there was tremendous enthusiasm and a great range of skills. We needed to look ahead – not just at what is happening now – remembering that the person made redundant today might be useful in the future. Archaeology was a very varied and complicated profession in terms of its structure – although hopefully the development of the National Occupational Standards will continue to smooth this out.
Entry into the profession was a major issue, and there needs to be a route for non-graduate entry into the profession – for example through the use of NVQs.
The potential loss of specialist skills as a result of the recession was a real worry for the profession, especially in finds and artefact studies where the situation was exacerbated by impending retirement of many specialists.
The ATF was working on a number of initiatives with partner organisations, and was encouraging closer relations between the training plans of organisations and those of individual staff. Drawing up Personal Development Plans (PDPs) and programmes of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) were important. Mike acknowledged that the ATF needs to do more to provide feedback to employers on these and other issues.
One interesting recent development was the development of the “Cultural Heritage Blueprint” by the skills council for the creative and cultural sector. This provides a workforce development plan for cultural heritage in the UK.
As far as the ATF was concerned, there were a number of practical steps which organisations could take to ensure that skills were maintained and enhanced in the profession. These included hosting apprentices, developing traineeships (perhaps in partnership), developing a workforce diversity plan, and providing staff with the opportunities to enhance and develop skills. and lists a number of practical steps for organisations.
There was also scope to develop wider partnerships between the Higher Education sector and commercial organisations, at a national level. Programmes such as the Clore Leadership Programme, which were well-used in the museums sector, were less well-known in the archaeology profession and should be made greater use of.
The final speaker for the day was Stewart Bryant of ALGAO. He noted that one current problem was the pressure from developers and LPAs to discharge conditions which had outstanding post-excavation conditions. There was a risk of contracting units failing with these commitments, as well as the risk of developers themselves going bust in mid-project. Other issues included the failure of HPR to make the Queens Speech, with the result that HERs remained non-statutory. The reform of PPG15 and PPG16 was also an issue.
Local government was able to help by maximising the potential for projects (where reasonable), by ensuring that all planning commitments are met by archaeological contractors and developers, and by providing more consistent advice. This last point was an acknowledgment that archaeological advice by local government archaeologists sometimes varied from authority to authority.
For their part, contractors and consultants could add more value to the process by focussing on quality above the minimum standard and not underselling the archaeology to their clients. They could also help promote a less adversarial culture, engage more in formal academic research and support local government services. Many local government archaeologists would welcome engagement from consultants and contractors on research priorities.
Looking to the future, ALGAO would like to see
- more and tighter regulation of the process, including more rigorous standards and guidance
- greater research justification for projects and sampling strategies
- greater emphasis on the public benefit of archaeology in its widest possible sense
The day finished with a lengthy and detailed discussion, led by Peter Hinton of the IfA. Several points emerged – the main one being the human cost of the recession, and its impact on the skills and well-being of individuals. Specialists pointed out that in fact their workload had increased substantially as a result of contractors concentrating more on project backlogs; whilst this was good in the short term there were issues of quality assurance. There was considerable concern about post-excavation budgets particularly, and the possible threat to projects being completed if archaeological firms or their clients collapsed. Local authority archaeologists reminded their commercial colleagues of the need for archaeology as a whole to provide a public benefit, and discussion explored some of the ways in which this can be measured and achieved. Accreditation, and barriers of entry to the profession was clearly an issue – although Alastair Dryburgh pointed out the model of the accountancy profession which also had low barriers to entry and where quality assurance was an issue for the individual firm rather than the profession as a whole.
In summing up, Peter Hinton noted that he had 32 bullet points of key issues which had emerged from the meeting. A full summary would appear shortly on the IfA website.
The government was genuinely aware of the issues facing the profession – at the highest levels – but was of course unable to directly subsidise archaeological jobs. There would be no bail out for archaeology as there had been for the banks.
There were clearly issues over the incentives for the profession to provide full quality services, and readjustment was needed to ensure that these were addressed. Accreditation and barriers to entry were of concern, and the IfA was looking at this. Some of the key points for attention included:
- an urgent need to work on curatorial standards and guidance
- discharge of planning conditions, especially post-excavation
- improvements to government planning guidance, to make the process work better
- the recession was an opportunity for change which should be embraced
- the public benefit of archaeology needed to be explained (by the profession) to the wider world
It was clear that further meetings like this would be of benefit to the profession, and it was hoped that a follow-up meeting could be arranged in due course.
Note! Whilst I have done my best to convey the impressions of the meeting, these notes are entirely personal and subjective and do not constitute an official record, nor do they puport to represent the views, opinions and policies of any of the organisations or individuals mentioned. Phrases in quotation marks are verbatim as recorded by me at the time, but may not be in the context which the speaker had either intended or delivered.
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