Interview with Gill King, MOLA Head of Project Management and Consultancy
We are delighted to introduce Gill King, BA (Jt Hons) MCIFA FSA (Scot) who has recently joined MOLA as Head of Project Management and Consultancy. Gill is a planning archaeologist with over 20 years’ experience of managing and curating archaeological and built heritage projects. Prior to joining MOLA in 2020, Gill was one of only five archaeological advisers/curators covering London’s archaeology, working from 2013-2016 at Historic England’s Greater London Archaeological Advisory Service (GLAAS), as Archaeological Adviser for the City of Westminster and seven other boroughs. Following this, she worked as Southwark Council’s in-house Senior Planner Archaeology from 2016-2020. She has advised on all aspects of archaeological interest, town planning, policy and management of the historic environment across London.
Having left MOLA and come back, do you think archaeology has got easier or more difficult in terms of what planners, authorities and clients require?
Since leaving MOLA in 1998, I can see that the world of commercial archaeology has changed 20 years later, and from my viewpoint these changes are improvements. Archaeology is now so much better regulated than when I began my career, and is more positively received by planners, authorities, applicants, developers and construction professionals. In reality, planners and developers are the great champions of archaeology and accept and recognise their ethical responsibilities, understanding that the historic environment is a finite and irreplaceable resource that must be protected. While it may look interesting on the telly, being an archaeologist was never an easy career path to follow, and when I began as a project manager it was often more a matter of stamina, grit and determination than process that ensured whether some archaeological projects got delivered, let alone to the high standards that are customary now. I have observed that MOLA especially has played a leading role in promoting the value and benefits of archaeology, reassuring clients, and building bridges in understanding between different sectors of the construction industry.
How can you use your experience and expertise to make the process easier?
I’m back at MOLA because I want to be a part of this knowledge transfer and work across the construction industry to make the process more efficient. I have learnt so much from the projects I have managed, from the challenges I have faced and the problem-solving strategies and lessons that I have had to learn. I want to share this experience and help smooth the path for not only MOLA archaeologists in their careers, but also for our clients in achieving the most efficient and cost- effective path through the planning system. I will always look back fondly on my time as a young field archaeologist and project manager at MOLAS and how it formed my career path and the amazing projects I have had the privilege to have been involved in.
What do today’s planning archaeologists want?
Today’s planning archaeologists and planning case officers need two things from applicants and their chosen archaeologist: first, clear accurate information, and, secondly, a robust ground-tested evidence-base for this information. Planners have numerous duties expected of them, one of the most pressing being the responsibility to make ‘informed planning decisions.’ The decision maker is often isolated in making these choices and they need to be able to trust, communicate, and negotiate with the applicant’s archaeologist to ensure that the best outcome is reached for the historic environment. It is also imperative that this outcome is reasonable, fair and proportionate to the scale, harm or impact of the development proposal. Case officers have a very difficult job balancing all the conflicting factors of a single planning application, within a set timescale, takes a great deal of skill and intelligence.
As a planning archaeologist much of my work was about simple communication and being able to have pragmatic problem-solving conversations with applicants and their advisers. The truth of managing archaeological projects through the planning system is that there are often many different solutions and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing archaeological interest. Applicants need friendly archaeologists who have good business acumen, think with agility and can find intelligent and resourceful solutions to their problems, getting the job done on time and within budget. MOLA archaeologists also look at the big picture and find add-on benefits to their clients in the form of social value, community engagement and sales and marketing benefits.
Have you noticed a change in the types of projects getting conditions?
The advice I give to applicants is that the earlier you engage with the planning archaeologist then the better the outcome will be for you, and you may even find that your site is de-risked and all your concerns about archaeology can be removed even before you get to submission. In London, a greater number of smaller sites are getting approval with conditions these days because more people understand archaeology and there have been big leaps forward like the NPPF, local policy and Historic England’s on-going programme of appraisal and tiering of the London Archaeological Priority Areas (APAs). In Southwark, I have noticed a change since 2016, because our applicants are realising that they actually have the power to influence what conditions the Local Planning Authority (LPA) will apply to their consent.
Applicants are now more proactive and were working with me very early in the process, which meant that together we could often deal with their archaeology pre-determination. On some sites, archaeology was resolved early, all they had to do was provide a robust evidence base to support their application, and then they could progress through planning with no pre-commencement conditions or archaeological mitigation to build into their development programme. My advice to applicants is employ your archaeologist, work together with them to explore your options, and get them to talk to the planning archaeologist at the earliest stage of your project. If you find an archaeologist, like our team at MOLA, that you can communicate with and who has the experience and resources to look at your project holistically then you can influence the outcome at planning, especially if you manage archaeology early enough in the project programme.
How flexible are planning teams and has this changed in recent years?
Planning teams are made up of very experienced and knowledgeable people, supported by experts in design, policy and many other specialisms. I had the pleasure of being part of the very proactive and innovative Design and Conservation team at Southwark and I admire the knowledge and versatility they bring. The way they can take about twenty conflicting considerations, somehow find a balance to them and give consent, all whilst genuinely championing good design, beauty and public benefit is inspiring! Unfortunately, although planners are very smart people, flexibility in the planning process is limited; failure to comply with planning control is a criminal offence and planners work within this tight legal framework, to tight timescales and are responsible for making decisions that are in the best interest of a wide range of stakeholders. Early engagement, design review and pre-application consultation add much to the process and I would always encourage this strongly.
Failure to comply with local and national policy can place limits on even the most agile planner and therefore applicants need to go to planning completely prepared, being aware of an inflexible process where even achieving validation needs careful preparation with regard to archaeological interest. Our Planning and Consultancy team at MOLA are available to discuss all these matters with our clients and help prepare for a smooth passage through the complexities of planning. Archaeology remains a challenging career choice and a difficult road to travel; nevertheless, I enjoy the challenge and I am very happy to be back at MOLA and part of a team of like-minded and inspiring colleagues.
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