Bunny huggers row latest - Fenland council leader says he only wanted to start a debate about archaeology

Under fire council leader Alan Melton tonight defended comments he made in a speech calling for planning restrictions to be relaxed to encourage new development.

When Alan Melton warned the 'bunny huggers' wouldn't like it, he can't have imagined the backlash that would follow.

But despite the angry response to his call for developers to be freed from the obligation to carry out archaeological surveys, Mr Melton was standing by his remarks today.

'To carry out the work is a long and protracted thing to do and it's also a disruption to the site itself,' he said.

'When you have 10 or up to 20 people suddenly descend on a site and start digging all over it has serious implications for the building methodology which follows.

'My argument is that there is a better way of doing it. When you are digging out footings on a building site, there is ample opportunity to expect the site at that time rather than going in for a double dig.'

As regards the now notorious 'bunny huggers' comment, the council leader said: 'If it has caused offence to some people then I apologise.'

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But he went on: 'There is no excuse from the plethora of e-mails and insults that I've had thrown at me from archaeological profession.

'This is not constructive because I just want to get a debate going about the necessity of this operation and the costs involved and the fact it delays so many significant construction projects.'

Developers in the Fens have complained bitterly for years over the soaring costs of archaeological surveys and Mr Melton said these would no longer form part of any committee agenda.

Mr Melton said tens of thousands of pounds was spent on excavations at the Neale Wade Community College, March - money, he claims, was 'money wasted, money that could have been spent on more classrooms or teachers'.

He continued: 'People have this idea that I'm dead against heritage but I am not. I am just looking at how cost effective it is because these surveys can drag on and on and we, the council taxpayers, have to pay for all of this.

'In this country we have a severe shortage of homes and we need to get on with building homes.

'There are plenty of builders out there on the dole when they could be in work and that's why I'm saying we need to look at this.

'All I wanted to do was get a proper debate going and if I have achieved that with my comments then I think that's a good thing.'

But Mike Hayworth, director at the council for British Archaeology, said Mr Melton's proposals were 'illegal'.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4, he added: 'It would also be very costly and damaging for local rate payers and developers and disastrous for our understanding of the internationally significant archaeology of the Fens.

'I don't see the point because archaeology is not in opposition to economic growth and development.

'Archaeologists work very closely and very effectively with developers as part of carefully managed and very professional programme of work that's always put in place.

'The key to this is always early discussion and early intervention and the truth of the matter is that archaeological work is programmed well in advance of building work.

'There is very rarely little disruption to building work except when on very infrequent occasions exceptional finds occur during the course of development and there are processes in place to manage those conversations for the best public interest.'

The Archaeology Forum and the Institute for Archaeologists have both released statements condemning Mr Melton's comments.

The forum said the archaeology of the Fens was of 'national and international importance'.

'The fragile equilibrium that maintains the exceptionally preserved sites of the Fens' prehistoric and early communities is vulnerable to uncontrolled development,' it added.

'Current planning policy works well to ensure that the most important sites are managed in a way that protects them while still allowing new development to take place.'

The statement by the 3,000-strong Institute for Archaeologists added: 'Alleged comments regarding the proposed abandonment of archaeological survey are particularly concerning and IfA will be contacting the council to ascertain the facts of the matter and to seek reassurance that existing historic environment planning policy and legislation will continue to be upheld.'

Thirty-two leading archaeologists, lead by Christopher Evans, executive director of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit at Cambridge University, have also signed a letter of protest against the plan.

The letter read: 'If Fenland District Council proceed with these plans, not only will it find itself contravening national planning guidelines and existing cultural and heritage statute and case law, it is likely any development will be open to legal challenges that will involve the council in major financial costs and cause prospective developers serious delays, if not worse.'

The letter adds: 'Of certain international significance within the Fenland district are the Roman town at Stonea - excavated by the British Museum, 1980-85 - and the superbly preserved, 3000 year-old timber-platform settlement recently discovered in quarries at Must Farm, Whittlesey.

'Effectively a 'prehistoric Pompeii' with its wood, textiles and metalwork all preserved the Must Farm site was only found through developer-funded fieldwork and now ranks amongst the most important later prehistoric sites in Europe.

'It is, however, only one of a number of major archaeological sites that have been discovered within the district over the last decade.

'To list but a few, uniquely waterlogged Bronze Age landscapes have been excavated at both Thorney and March, and a number of important Iron Age and Roman settlements and specialist salt-production sites have also been investigated in advance of development.

'If, under councillor Melton's guidance, the council continues to push through with this irresponsible policy change, it amounts to saying that its local heritage is of no consequence.

'This is certainly not true from regional, national and international perspectives, and is surely no basis upon which to build a worthwhile and sustainable future.'

One archaeologist has also told the EDP he had contacted Mr Melton about his remarks but was not happy with the response.

'I did email Mr Melton pointing out that what he was attempting to do was illegal under EU law, and that it would make the planning process slower and more expensive,' he said.

'I received a reply from him which simply read: 'Long live Eric Pickles'. I assume this is what passes for reasoned debate in his part of the world, or may be an attempt at humour.'

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