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Andrew Saunders: Chief Inspector of Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments

Andrew Saunders was the Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings at the Department of the Environment, and later at English Heritage, from 1973-1989. For much of his life, he was a very distinguished, albeit strictly part-time, professional archaeologist. And he ended his career as a respected and popular senior administrator and professional advisor on England's ancient monuments and historic buildings.

Andrew Downing Saunders was born at St Austell, Cornwall, in 1931. He won a scholarship to the Magdalen College School in Oxford and, after National Service, he went on to read for a history degree at Magdalen College, Oxford. Following graduation and a spell of work on an archaeological dig in Scandinavia, he joined the Ancient Monuments Inspectorate, to which, at the age of 23, he was appointed as an inspector.

The job involved advising on the preservation and upkeep of ancient monuments which had been scheduled as worthy of preservation under the Ancient Monuments Acts. Saunders advised the Chief Inspector and the Ancient Monuments Board which in turn advised the Minister. This was a demanding post which involved him in much report writing and extensive travel around the remoter areas of England. Despite a heavy workload, in his spare time he joined in archaeological digs and published his findings in professional journals. He had a lifelong interest in artillery defences and fortresses, from the early 14th century until the mid-1950s.

In 1973, Saunders was promoted to the job of Chief Inspector at the relatively early age of 42. He was to take over the reins at a very difficult time. In 1970, the Ministry of Works and the Ministry of Housing were absorbed into a new "super ministry" – the Department of the Environment. Prior to the formation of this new department, ministerial responsibility for the built heritage was, amazingly, split between two entirely different departments: scheduled ancient monuments were dealt with by the Ministry of Works, and historic buildings – relatively "newer" structures – by the Ministry of Housing. The new Department of the Environment was created overnight, but the manifold problems associated with the merger were left to Saunders to sort out over the coming years.

A new Departmental Directorate had to be formed, with the late V.D. Lipman (known as "old VD" to all who worked with him) as Under Secretary. Saunders was given the difficult task of merging the Historic Buildings Investigators and the Ancient Monuments Inspectors into a single, viable unit. He was very successful in this sensitive task, primarily because both sets of professionals soon realised that Saunders had no personal axe to grind and that his sole aim was to make the new Inspectorate an efficient and streamlined unit.

In 1983, the National Heritage Act was passed and the Directorate of Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings was hived off by the Thatcher government to become English Heritage. Saunders retained his post as Chief Inspector and head of the professional staff in the new set-up. But morale was at a low ebb, with rumours that stringent cuts were in the offing. Saunders did his utmost to veto proposed cuts to his budget that were suggested by the new breed of management consultants and accountants. Gradually, morale began to improve. Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, the new Chairman of English Heritage, also greatly helped in the process, being a charming peacemaker with whom Saunders quickly formed an excellent working relationship.

One of the last, but probably the most controversial and difficult of cases on which Saunders had to advise Edward Montagu was the application to demolish the historic – and listed – Mappin and Webb and associated buildings, opposite the Mansion House at No. 1 Poultry in the City of London. The application was proposed by the multimillionaire Peter (now Lord) Palumbo, a close friend of Princess Diana. Prince Charles said that the replacement structure resembled "a 1930s wireless".

Both Saunders and the Chairman advised the Secretary of State for the Environment to reject the application. They argued that to demolish six listed buildings in one go would set a very bad precedent and could encourage a lot of local authorities to grant similar applications. Furthermore, the replacement building was considered to be inappropriate, bearing in mind the proximity to the Mansion House and other old buildings. However, English Heritage's advice was rejected. The Secretary of State's Public Inquiry Inspector recommended that permission be granted: "It might just be a masterpiece", he argued.

On retirement, Saunders threw himself full-time into the world of archaeological digs. For many years he led the excavations at Launceston Castle in Cornwall. He continued writing for archaeological journals and was made an Honorary President of many local archaeological societies, from Hendon in London, to Cornwall in the west and Cranbrook in the south-east.

Andrew Downing Saunders, civil servant: born St Austell, Cornwall 22 September 1931; married 1961 Hilary Jean Aikman (marriage dissolved 1980; two sons, one daughter), 1985 Gillian Ruth Hutchinson (one daughter); died Cranbrook, Kent 13 March 2009.