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Fears over cuts to Norfolk heritage department

PUBLISHED: 06:30 13 October 2015 | UPDATED: 16:27 13 October 2015

The second circle at Holme Beach

The second circle at Holme Beach

Archant

Fears have been raised that Norfolk's rich heritage could be left untapped in the future, because of controversial plans to strip back spending on the team which records the county's history.

Norfolk has blazed trail

The proposed cuts would reduce four and a half posts down to two in the identification and recording service.

Since October 1, 2012, when small archaeological finds started being fully computerised across the country, staff have handled 33,200 finds out of 274,754 in the whole of England and Wales.

This means they are the busiest – and to some the best – in the whole country, handling one-ninth of all finds.

It is a free service, where members of the public can bring in anything they find to be identified, from scraps of pot and worked flints to metal objects.

It is in the latter area where Norfolk has blazed a trail over the past 25 years, forging close relationships between archaeologists and metal detectorists which are the envy of every other county. These links have produced some spectacular finds – such as a gold and jewel Anglo-Saxon pendant, pictured, uncovered by a UEA student.

Archaeologists are worried this goodwill will be lost if the cuts go ahead, at incalculable cost to the recording of what people find.

The unit tasked with assessing and recording the thousands of archaeological finds – some of which have been of national importance – could be scaled back as part of a bid to find £111m of savings in Norfolk County Council’s overall budget in the next three years.

The threat of the £172,000 cuts to the Historic Environment Service could mean:

The end of the identification and recording service which logs archaeological finds made by members of the public;

Advice would only be given on a reduced number of planning applications, meaning only statutory obligations would be met;

Heritage heavyweight

Experts say Norfolk can hold its own against the likes of Stonehenge and Sutton Hoo when it comes to heritage.

The stunning finds in the county’s catalogue include an Anglo-Saxon burial in south Norfolk, which was hailed as potentially altering understanding of Norfolk in the 7th century.

And a gold and jewel Anglo-Saxon pendant uncovered in a Norfolk field by a UEA student is thought to be one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries for years.

Another major project saw the dating of the second Bronze Age circle at Holme beach – the so-called big sister of Seahenge.

The tree ring dating showed the timbers used to build that circle were felled in 2049BC, exactly the same time as those used to build Seahenge.

And the Caistor Roman Project was set up to in 2009 to encourage community involvement in archaeological research in the Roman town of Venta Icenorum, present-day Caistor St Edmund.

The reduction or even ending of advice on historic buildings, other than those Norfolk County Council owns;

The public archaeological database, known as the historic environment record, for Norfolk would no longer be updated;

Public events such as archaeology days and school visits would stop.

The council said all departments have been asked to look at spending reductions and emphasised no decisions had yet been made.

Yet experts are concerned and say not only will expertise be lost, but community enthusiasm could also dwindle.

Caroline Davison, director of the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, said: “The trust is very concerned to learn of the proposed cuts to the historic environment service.

“The historic environment record is a vital tool of the planning system – if it isn’t kept up to date it will be increasingly difficult to make properly informed decisions on development proposals, and that could put some of the county’s heritage and archaeological sites at risk.”

The proposals would reduce the heritage service back to only its statutory provision, meaning advice only on ancient monuments and listed buildings would be covered.

The president of the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society, Sophie Cabot, said the threat to the identification and recording service – which is one of the biggest and most successful units in England and Wales – is one of the most worrying elements to the cuts.

She said: “The identification and recording service is an amazing service. This scheme was picked up from Norfolk and developed nationally. It would be a massive loss of expertise if cuts were made to it.

“This is a service which is extremely good value for money. It’s never going to make huge savings but it has the potential to do a lot of harm around how people understand the places they live.”

Every county council committee has been asked to identify 25pc of potential reductions. If they are achieved, £169m worth of savings will be made in that three-year period. The environment, development and transport committee savings could also include £51,000 by stopping match funding to Hethel Innovation for European funding bid saving, and £40,000 by stopping traffic marshalls in Norwich city centre.

A Norfolk County Council spokesman said: “We understand people have strong feelings towards this service but we need to be clear that this is just one step in the process to address the council’s shortfall. No decisions have been made at this stage. Discussions will continue at the next environment, development and transport committee with the final decision about all service budgets taken by full council in February after a full public consultation.”

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