An independent archaeological charity has suggested information used to secure a rare kind of planning permission for a visitors’ centre at York’s 13th-century Clifford’s Tower should have been “much fuller” than it was.
Dr Mike Heyworth, the director of the Council for British Archaeology (CBA), spoke out after blueprints showing excavation proposals relating to the Grade I-listed structure’s mound were revealed, showing deeper works than he previously thought.
In January, independent York councillor Johnny Hayes sent a Freedom of Information request to English Heritage asking for documents and drawings that had not been submitted to the City of York Council and Historic England ahead of planning permission that was given in October 2016 and Scheduled Monument Consent that was approved in November that year.
The results showed an administration wing containing an office and staff rooms forming part of the visitors’ centre plans being built underneath the historic site’s motte in a way Coun Hayes says were not submitted in public. A letter from the Save Clifford’s Tower Campaign, supported by the CBA, was sent to the Secretary of State for Digital Culture Media and Sport, Matt Hancock, asking him to consider revoking the Scheduled Monument Consent – rare approval by Historic England for works on select nationally important sites.
Coun Hayes said: “When I received them I was shocked. I realised the excavation was going to be huge.”
He said it appears the wing would go below ground level under the motte itself, creating a 13-metres-by-five-metres excavation. “It’s known to be one of the richest archeological sites in the country,” he said.
“It’s known to be a Roman and Anglican burial ground. If you go under ground level – this is the crucial factor – we are into ‘unknown complex and significant archaeology’.
“That’s a quote from English Heritage and Historic England themselves.”
Dr Heyworth said that after Coun Hayes got in touch, “we realised there was some important depths” to the application they had not understood.
“We hadn’t appreciated that it would go very significantly under the mound. We knew it would go into the mound, but not under.”
He added: “For this level of site, we would normally expect a much fuller level of information so you can make a better informed decision.”
English Heritage said it had “supplied all the necessary documents and drawings” for the application, which “clearly showed the exact nature and dimensions of the entire visitor centre”.
Jeremy Ashbee, its head curator, added the “project has been specifically designed to minimise damage to the significant archaeology of this site”.
“Right from the beginning of this project, we have undertaken detailed archaeological studies of the site.
“We will continue these studies and if at any point, any sensitive archaeology is revealed, we will of course take that into account – as we always do,” he said.
Historic England has previously said that it “concluded that there were public benefits of understanding and access that could outweigh the harm”.
The latest criticism of English Heritage’s plans at Clifford’s Tower – the last remaining part of York’s Royal castle – does not relate to a legal battle aimed at stopping them. Coun Johnny Hayes has appealed to overturn a High Court decision in favour of City of York Council’s permission for the visitor centre at the foot of the tower and new walkways and stairwells inside, but that court process is separate to the Scheduled Monument Consent issue.
The appeal was due to be heard at the Royal Courts of Justice on April 11 and 12, but was put back until May and has since been set for July 23.