Leading Article: Old settlements for new in Essex

Click to follow
IT IS EASY to see why there should be controversy over the housing development due to be built on the site of an old Roman town at Heybridge, Essex. Archaeologists argue that the 32-acre site - which contains the remains of Iron Age, Roman and Saxon settlements, squeezed into a 3ft layer of earth barely a ruler's depth below open pasture - is of enormous importance. Its excavation could reveal much about social change between these three civilisations. This advance in human knowledge, they believe, will carry more weight with future generations than an estate of 480 Identikit houses.

Yet Bovis Homes, the developer of the site, points out that the existence of archaeological remains underground was known well before 1987, when it began applying for planning consent. Although Bovis was under no legal obligation to do so, it chose to lay out nearly pounds 200,000 for the investigations that have revealed the settlements.

While figures published in yesterday's Independent suggested that 85 per cent of the volume of remains on the site will be 'destroyed or permanently buried', Bovis insists that by area, only 25 per cent of the site will be lost to scholarship, and that because of a high water table. The programme of works now under way at Heybridge has the approval of the chief archaeologist of Essex County Council, and has elicited a pounds 1m grant from English Heritage, the largest that the organisation has ever made.

Thankfully, the disputes between archaeologists and property developers that have so plagued the spread of housing across parts of rural Britain should now be a thing of the past. Under planning guidance set out by central government, the principle that the 'polluter pays' will now force developers to pay for archaeological works needed on their sites.

If there is a lesson in this, it is that archaeologists who have misgivings about Heybridge should reconsider some of their own methods. Since advancing technology means that future generations will be better equipped to excavate than our own, important sites are usually left intact where possible. But when development becomes almost certain - as was the case at Heybridge - archaeologists and landowners should co-operate, so that thorough and unhurried investigation can be done before the bulldozers move in.