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HS2 Head of Heritage, Helen Wass, on delivering the country’s largest linear infrastructure project

MOLA team

HS2 is the country’s largest linear infrastructure project and offers an unprecedented opportunity to explore our past. The archaeological programme is underway and our archaeologists are undertaking significant pieces of work for the project as part of the MOLA Headland consortium. 

Guiding the historic environment work for HS2 is HERDS - the Historic Environment Research and Delivery Strategy - which presents a step change in the way we approach projects of this nature. MOLA’s Chief Executive, Janet Miller, speaks to Helen Wass, Head of Heritage at HS2, about the vision, execution and legacy of HS2 and HERDS.

Janet Miller, MOLA Chief Executive:  HERDS has been described as an evolution of existing and recent approaches. What differentiates this strategy from those that have preceded it?

Helen Wass HS2 Head of Heritage:  The scale and complexities of HS2 provided the opportunity to think carefully about the type of research strategy such a project requires.

Through extensive consultation that included community groups, academics, the wider heritage profession, Historic England and local authority specialist we sought to understand what people’s priorities for research were.  We reviewed the existing knowledge of the history of the route and wider research frameworks and strategies. 

We have stepped away from merely recording sites/ buildings/ features because they exist and have set clear objectives in knowledge creation, involving people and legacy.  These are supported by consistent delivery mechanisms to guide our specialist supply chain.

One of the key aspects of the strategy is ‘investigation with purpose’ i.e. ‘creating knowledge not just gathering information’, how is this being realised in the work happening?

This is being realised in a number of ways. 

The specific objectives establish priorities for investigation and form a framework for decision making at all stages of the investigation process.  Work at any location is considered against what they can deliver against the specific objectives – we don’t want to spend resources examining things we already understand.  And of course we are able to look at broader landscape questions.  To do this we are working with the archaeological contractors and our stakeholders along the route to devise consistent approaches and to share emerging information.

We have created a digital platform (which will soon be live) to share information between contractors – assisting collaboration and information exchange which is not often easy on commercial projects -  to host results of the various stages of work and post completed work.  Our stakeholders will also have access to it to see the progress of works and results.  This is one way to make the information as live as possible and inform next stages of investigation and research.

HS2 aspires to ensure that there is ‘real and substantive public benefit’. How are you achieving this and what does success look like for you?

It’s early days in our programme of investigation; we have many years of discovery to share.

Our benefits/success will take many forms.  We will be deepening our understanding of Britain’s past, with amazing stories to tell on a local to international level.  We will continue to work with our supply chain to enhance existing skills and introduce new innovations.  Coupled with that there will be many training opportunities at all levels.  We have the chance to inspire and nurture the next generation of professionals, which would be real and substantive benefit.

We also want to involve communities along the route, to excite them about their local history, perhaps for them to become involved in their locality, start a group, research their parish – that would be a success.  The three Heritage Open Days we held in 2018 were well attended and initiatives led by our supply chain have been very popular and we hope to continue that success throughout our works.

Another aspect in the strategy relates to innovating and being challenging, helping refine and develop new techniques and philosophies in the historic environment sector? Why is this important?

HW:  It is important for the sector to challenge ‘by rote’ approaches to archaeological investigation, analysis, dissemination and archiving.  Projects such as HS2 offer the sector the opportunity to innovate in all ways, to test new techniques and practices.  We want everyone involved (HS2 included) to think about what and why they are doing something and to push the boundaries of what they need to deliver and how they do that. 

It is important that archaeology is not treated as a mechanistic practice in advance of construction, but that the works are re-framed as an opportunity to address historic environment questions. This puts an emphasis on investigation as a practice rather than just a process. Current innovative approaches in the field include Tablet recording systems, the use of UAVs to explore setting and a series of community projects including the Euston History Engine of community based setting study.

For you, what would a positive legacy for HS2 historic environment strategy look like? Is there anything in particular that you think will make a big difference?

A positive legacy would be that we have asked questions of the historic environment and made a considerable contribution to our understanding of the development of Britain. I want us to make a difference on how we engage with a range of audiences, actively exciting them about heritage. I also want the HS2 programme to challenge the historic environment industry, providing a new benchmark for how we ‘do archaeology’ and share our stories.