Archaeologists have condemned a Tory council leader's threat to dismantle all archaeological controls on development, saying that the regulations are necessary to protect the UK's unique national heritage.
Alan Melton, leader of Fenland District Council, dismissed opponents of development as "bunny huggers" in a speech last week. Archaeologists fear his views reflect a national threat to all heritage protection as a result of the government's determination to simplify the planning process to encourage development.
The principle that developers must pay for archaeological excavation – before construction work destroys sites – has led to a string of major discoveries in the past 20 years, including the "Prince of Prittlewell" (a royal Saxon grave on the outskirts of Southend), a pit full of decapitated skeletons that may have been victims of a Viking massacre in Dorset, the first purpose-built Tudor theatre in London, and a 5,000-year-old enclosure under Heathrow's Terminal 5.
Archaeologists now fear that the threat to give developers free rein in East Anglia's Fenland – known for the spectacular preservation of waterlogged prehistoric and later sites – may be part of a wider national trend, particularly at a time when many local authorities are losing their conservation officers and archaeologists.
Dr Tony Pollard, director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at the University of Glasgow, reflected the anxieties of many: "My worry as someone far away from the Fens – though I fully appreciate their archaeological importance – is that this could mark the thin end of the wedge, with the recession being used as an excuse to trash our national archaeological heritage in the name of economic recovery."
Melton, who delivered his speech last week in Wisbech, said: "The bunny huggers won't like this, but if they wish to inspect a site, they can do it when the footings are being dug out."
The speech was widely reported by local papers including the Wisbech Standard and the Eastern Daily Press, and as word spread the Council for British Archaeology, the Archaeology Forum and the Institute for Archaeologists expressed outrage.
Both the Forum and CBA have been in discussions with English Heritage about the implications for archaeology. The issue will also be raised by members of the parliamentary all party archaeology group in debates in the House of Lords on the government's Localism Bill.
According to the online version of the Eastern Daily Press article, Melton emailed Conservative party colleagues to say: "I don't tweet, but what a wonderful day. To be attacked by bunny huggers, historic lefties, and the vested interested professional classes. Eric Pickles will be extremely proud of me."