Sunday 31 August 2014

On Binchester


I’ll preface this post by saying that I’m not an archaeologist, and that the information here is subject to change as the news develops and more details emerge. My goal here is to make sure I have a clear grasp of the matter, but as my knowledge of the issues involved is limited at best, I welcome your corrections and comments.[1]

The Situation

Yesterday morning I was contacted on Twitter regarding the Binchester Roman Fort and the danger it now faces.[2] The fort, also known as Vinovia, is an archaeological site located north of an area called Bishop Auckland, in County Durham, England. The present hubbub surrounding it has been outlined in two articles in a regional newspaper (The Northern Echo); the news was also posted on the Roman Binchester field project blog, subsequently picked up in another regional newspaper (the Chronicle), and garnered national attention on Saturday in The Independent. I recommend you check out those articles, but what they all boil down to, so far as I can tell, is this:

The Church of England (specifically, the Church Commissioners) owns a considerable amount of land in Bishop Auckland, and is currently poised to sell some of it.[3] Though the Binchester site, as a scheduled monument, is safe from sale, it straddles two of the ten plots that are available for purchase.[4] Members of the field project team in charge of the site are very concerned that any development around the site could negatively impact their work, both by affecting access and presumably also by potentially nixing the possibility of future excavations that could extend the site. The Auckland Charitable Trust – a local heritage organization that’s active in the area – has offered £2m (reportedly 10% above the market value of the land) in order to acquire both lots and thus to keep the site in the hands of its current experts. To that end, the field project group is urging individuals to contact the Church Commissioners to voice support for the Trust’s bid.[5] Meanwhile, the Church is downplaying concerns by noting the various legal protections under which the Binchester site falls, and deriding the project’s call for public engagement as an inappropriate “scare story” intended to unfairly pressure the Commissioners to favor the Trust.


Perhaps I'm simply biased, but to me, the response by the archaeologists involved is perfectly understandable: they have a considerable professional and emotional investment in the site and in their work with it, and so their worries about its future are entirely reasonable. It’s the Church’s reaction that's left me puzzled. Let’s look at some of their official statement:[6]
“We are disappointed that such an excellent body as the Auckland Castle Trust do not recognise the statutory protections in operation for Binchester Roman Fort."
“Binchester Roman Fort is a scheduled ancient monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979.”
“In addition Durham County Council retains a Deed of Guardianship for the site which ensures public access."
“These statutory protections will continue to apply to any prospective purchaser of the land."
The Binchester site does indeed fall under the auspices of the 1979 legislation, meaning that it can’t be built on, demolished, damaged, or altered in any way without formal government consent. But it’s worth noting that these protections apply solely to the limited area defined in the formal listing; only those very few sites classified as “Areas of Archaeological Importance” enjoy more stringent legal protections that can extend to surrounding areas. From what I understand, that’s the actual nature of the Project and Trust’s concern: not that protections aren’t in place, but that in the future they would prove insufficient to prevent developers from using the surrounding land in ways that could make accessing the site vastly more difficult.
“The statement issued by the trust seems to be creating a scare story in order to further its own objectives to become a preferential purchaser in the sale of land.
“The process for the sale is transparent and leaves no room for undue influence by any interested party. All offers will be considered without prejudice or preference.”
“It is disappointing that through their actions Auckland Castle Trust seem to be seeking to manipulate an open and transparent process through the launch of campaign (sic) which would result in them being the only potential purchasers of the site.”
Three items pop out at me: the phrases “undue influence” and “considered without prejudice or preference”, and the repeated word “transparent”. First, let’s assume that the spokesman intended to use “undue influence” in its more formal (and so more forceful) legal definition:
“Influence by which a person is induced to act otherwise than by their own free will or without adequate attention to the consequences.” – OED
I’m not sure I see how this description applies to the Trust’s actions. Certainly they’re seeking to influence the Commissioners, but it seems to me that their goal is not to curtail free will or diminish the attention paid to the consequences of this sale, but actually quite the opposite – they’re seeking to make the Commissioners aware of the potentially dire consequences if the land is sold to parties who don’t have the best interests of the Binchester site in mind. 

As for “without prejudice or preference”, I can only ask: why not? Certainly prejudice in the social sense should never be tolerated, but regarding the issues involved, I’m unclear as to why the Commissioners shouldn’t favor one proposal over another. Why isn’t preferential treatment being given to parties that, in their bids, ably demonstrate that they can and will exercise proper stewardship of a national monument? It ties in with that popular word “transparent”. That the Church spokesman emphasizes it by repetition is somewhat ironic, given that it’s precisely what seems to be lacking from them at this moment. The real question I’d like answered is this: by what criteria are the bids to be assessed, when they’ve all been submitted? A truly transparent process would make this information readily available, which would in turn do much to relieve the valid concerns of the parties involved. In the absence of this information, with the attendant lack of concrete assurance that the interests of the site are the foremost concerns, and with the dismissive tone of the Church’s response, it’s easy to assume the worst: that the Church doesn’t recognize (or perhaps simply doesn't care about) the intrinsic cultural value of the site, and is instead executing this sale based solely on the land’s financial value. 

This, if indeed the case, would be truly unfortunate, given both that Binchester has offered insights into the early role of Christianity in England, and that the Church seemed so very excited to list the acquisition of the land in its annual report for 2007, which made great mention of the publicity generated by Binchester's appearance on the television show Time Team. A more cynical observer might be inclined to think that now the site is no longer generating media buzz, the Church has lost interest in it save for where their wallets are concerned. I am not so cynical; instead I’m simply deeply disappointed by how this situation is unfolding. I can only hope that the Church will in coming days actually demonstrate their commitment to transparency, and prove more willing to work with the Trust and the Project to resolve this issue to everyone’s satisfaction, with the crucial outcome of protecting our cultural heritage for posterity.

  1. I’ll also note, as I have in the past, that I really need to use this blog more often.  ↩
  2. Two key twitter accounts to follow for more on this issue: @DavidPetts1 (David Petts, the Project coordinator), and @RomanBinchester (the project’s official Twitter presence). @ceadela has also been highly active in the nascent campaign. 
  3. Or possibly all of it; the full area available for sale is not currently clear, nor are the exact boundaries for the ten lots in question or the two Binchester lots in particular.  ↩
  4. It's not confirmed, but this listing is believed to describe the entirety of the land available, of which the two plots in question are a part.  ↩
  5. The email address: A petition is reportedly also forthcoming. [Edit September 1st, 2014: The petition was announced earlier today, and is online here.   
  6. Quotes are drawn from the several news reports linked in the second paragraph; the full statement by the Church spokesman was not readily available.  ↩

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