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House of Commons Hansard
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Flag Fen Bronze Age Park
20 July 2016
Volume 613

[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the development of the Flag Fen bronze age park in Peterborough.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs Moon, and it is an honour and privilege to serve under your chairmanship for the first time.

I also welcome the Minister back to her position after her maternity leave. It is great to see her reappointed to her post in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport under the new dispensation. In addition, I pay tribute to the excellent work by our colleague, the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett), who covered her duties during her absence, to his great credit.

I am here in Westminster Hall today to talk briefly about the potential development of the Flag Fen bronze age park in Peterborough. Flag Fen has the potential to be one of the finest cultural, historical and archaeological sites in the United Kingdom. In talking about Flag Fen, I will refer not only to the existing Flag Fen facility, which is located in my constituency about four miles east of the centre of the city of Peterborough, but to the Must Farm site, which is in the constituency of the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay), and adjacent to the town of Whittlesey.

Not many people will be aware of this, but the Fenland area to the east of Peterborough is one of the pre-eminent bronze age areas in the whole of Europe. The Minister may well know that in 1982 the noted archaeologist Francis Pryor, working with others, discovered the site at Flag Fen, which was a well-preserved wetland timber causeway. Since then, Flag Fen has been developed into a visitor centre with an additional bronze age archive, reconstruction and landscape recreation, with metal and other artefacts. Indeed, it is now a site for leisure and culture, and I can attest to the fact that it is a multi-use site because last summer I took my family to see a production of “The Three Musketeers” in the open air theatre at Flag Fen and we had a superb time. As the Minister will know, Flag Fen is managed by Vivacity, the arts, culture, sport and leisure trust, on behalf of Peterborough City Council.

Flag Fen itself is already considered to be a site of national importance archaeologically, and it is of course a scheduled monument. However, the site cannot be left in abeyance, because it is effectively drying out, which threatens its survival. Historic England is working with key stakeholders to see whether water levels on the site can be raised.

That is Flag Fen, but even more exciting is the site one mile to its east, Must Farm, which, as I have said, is adjacent to the town of Whittlesey. In 2011, nine bronze age log boats were discovered on the site and they are now preserved and displayed at Flag Fen. Further excavation of Must Farm has been undertaken by Cambridge Archaeological Unit, with funding from Historic England and Forterra Ltd, the company that operates the brick pit in which the site is located. That archaeological work has provided us with unique insights into the late bronze age, creating a picture of life on the site 3,000 years ago.

At Must Farm, there are five well-preserved roundhouses, as well as food deposits; if anyone is interested, let me say that people in that period largely ate red deer, pike and wild boar. Other discoveries include fabric, a cartwheel, jewellery and animal skeletons. The site was partly destroyed by fire, which has led it to being described by the media as “The Pompeii of the bronze age”, or sometimes as, “The Peterborough Pompeii”. Some people in Fenland take exception to that latter description, as the site is in Fenland and not in the city of Peterborough, but we will not dwell on that. The point is that the site was evacuated very quickly as a result of the fire and its occupants naturally left in a hurry, but in so doing they left a portrait in time of life in the bronze age.

Must Farm has been described by Historic England as being undoubtedly one of the most important prehistoric sites excavated in Britain for many years and the site’s academic value is undoubtedly very high. Historic England also says that many of the finds, including pottery, bronze artefacts and the largest glass collection from the bronze age ever found in the UK, are of a type never seen before or only partly seen, in fragmentary form.

Must Farm is a site of international importance and it attracts scholars from across the world. In time, it will revolutionise our understanding of life in the bronze age, both in the United Kingdom and in Europe. So it is right to pay tribute to the diligent, hard work of the fantastic team behind the excavation over the last few years, which has cost about £1.4 million and was essentially financed by Forterra Ltd and Historic England. I was privileged to have the opportunity in February this year to go with my neighbour, the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire, and the then acting Minister, the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford, to see for ourselves the fabulous work and the dedication shown by the team on the site.

However, the site cannot be kept in its present state on its present location; inevitably, it must be relocated. Historic England and Forterra Ltd believe that, to continue the conservation and analysis of the timber structures that have been found, a three-year programme and funding regime is necessary. The Minister will probably know that a study was completed in 2014 that examined the potential options for and development of what was then described as a “Museum of the Bronze Age” in Peterborough. At the time, the study assessed the bronze age archive and the potential business models, viability and site option appraisals for bringing forward the museum project.

More recently—indeed, on 27 May—key stakeholders met to take this project forward. They were Historic England, Vivacity, Cambridgeshire County Council, Peterborough City Council, Cambridge University, the local enterprise partnership, Cambridge Archaeological Unit and Arts Council England. It shows how important this project is that such a wide range of key stakeholders are invested in its future success. They updated the finds from 2014 to this year, reviewed the feasibility study and expanded the assessment, looking at the site’s tourism and research potential, its development and business modelling options and its viability. Peterborough City Council was the key stakeholder and took the strategic lead on the project, with a firm belief that all those agencies should work collaboratively, because it was imperative to move forward on this important national and international project.

All parties agreed that the refreshed options appraisal should consider the most sustainable approach, including financial sustainability in respect of the future display of this hugely important fenland archaeological discovery. Flag Fen visitor centre will be central to the project, and an approach to the Heritage Lottery Fund will be the next step, with a view to bidding for between £2 million and £3 million to make it a reality. Incidentally, the Heritage Lottery Fund was not included in the key stakeholders’ discussions, so that there was not a conflict of interest and the Heritage Lottery Fund could look with fresh eyes at the efficacy or otherwise of the stakeholders’ proposal.

We hope that the project will emphasise providing the greatest possible benefit to the city of Peterborough’s visitor economy, to Fenland District Council and to the utilisation of Peterborough’s existing assets, which over the years include the refurbished and relaunched museum and, in pride of place, our wonderful medieval cathedral. The cathedral is more than halfway through its “Peterborough 900” appeal, which celebrates the 900-year anniversary of the establishment of a Saxon abbey on the site or nearby. That appeal is well on its way to achieving its aim of raising £10 million for a new visitor centre and other key buildings.

I am not saying that Flag Fen and Must Farm are the equivalent of Stonehenge or the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, but they have the potential to go in that direction and be a great asset. I am here to raise the profile of the project and, through this debate, to encourage serious scholars, students and casual visitors and tourists to go to the Peterborough area and see this fantastic project. I hope that the Heritage Lottery Fund is benign when it looks at our application in the next year or so and positive about the project. In Peterborough, we have a great archaeological, cultural, artistic and historic asset, which is of national and international significance.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I believe this is my first time, too. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) for tabling this debate. He said he wanted to raise the issue’s profile through this debate, and he has certainly done that. It is important that we always consider our heritage, whatever that might be, when looking at everything to do with tourism and building on our local economy. I am grateful to him for mentioning the visit to Must Farm by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett), while he excellently covered my position during my maternity leave. I have always believed that it is important for us as Ministers to put on our wellies and get out to such sites, so that we can fully understand what we are dealing with, particularly when it comes to archaeology.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough said in his contribution, the fenland east of Peterborough is a unique environment in this country. Excavations have forged new techniques and approaches that have helped redefine and enhance our understanding of pre-history. Favourable preservation conditions offer us an exceptional and invaluable window into the past. Flag Fen archaeological park, with its bronze age reconstructed roundhouse and the incredibly preserved timbers of the prehistoric causeway, allows us to travel back 3,500 years to discover what life was like for our prehistoric ancestors. The preservation and quality of the artefacts that have emerged are significant enough to offer an incredible insight into prehistoric life. It is held up as one of the finest bronze age archaeological sites in northern Europe. I understand that 200-plus school groups and 10,000 visitors make the journey to the site every year, and I hope they leave with a greater understanding of this truly internationally important discovery.

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Vivacity, working on behalf of Peterborough City Council, on its work in developing the hands-on learning offer for schools. Its use of the Flag Fen collections helps students increase their engagement with history and archaeology more than classroom study would alone. To build on that work, I am pleased to confirm that Historic England’s heritage schools programme has recently commissioned a project to further engage local schools in the pre-history of the Fens. The programme creates quality teaching resources and a bespoke curriculum to help educate students about their local heritage.

The Flag Fen site was discovered by Francis Pryor in 1982, and I was pleased to read that he is also advising at the recent excavations at the nearby Must Farm archaeological site. His skills and expertise are invaluable to this area of research. Both Flag Fen and the extensive Must Farm settlement excavations, which ended last week, are archaeological projects that have been in the vanguard of prehistoric research. The projects are not simply one-off excavations that have caught the media’s attention. As Flag Fen demonstrates, the sites have an important and continuing role in developing our understanding of the prehistoric landscape. I am pleased to report that Flag Fen’s expert staff are continuing to preserve our history and important artefacts on behalf of the nation. The eight log boats that my hon. Friend mentioned, which were discovered at Must Farm, are now being preserved at the Flag Fen museum. My thanks go to Historic England for contributing towards the Flag Fen excavations and the ongoing feasibility studies that are looking into the long-term preservation of the Flag Fen site.

The fen area is truly amazing. It is a rich source of archaeological finds. One fundamental aspect of archaeology is that new material is always refining and reworking existing knowledge. The fen area continues to contribute in no small way to our growing understanding of how our ancestors lived, as there is often no written record, but only physical remains to guide us, including landscapes, structures, sites, deposits and objects. Some of the remains lie hidden from sight, below ground or underwater, but others form prominent features in our landscapes or seascapes, contributing to the richness of their character, including their folklore. Together, they help to enrich our quality of life, by contributing to our sense of cultural identity and spirit of place. They provide wonderful opportunities for research, education, leisure and tourism, much of which falls into my much wider portfolio.

Such remains represent a finite and often fragile resource, which is subject to a broad range of human activities and natural processes. My officials have liaised with their counterparts in other Departments to ensure that effective and consistent policies on the conservation and enhancement of nationally important archaeological sites such as Flag Fen are fully integrated into national planning policy.

Flag Fen was declared a scheduled monument by the Secretary of State in 2012 under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, giving it legal protection. As I mentioned, part of the site is open to the public as a visitor attraction. It has become really important to recognise that funding for archaeological sites is always needed. Owing to the site’s nature and location, it is essential for Flag Fen to make the most of opportunities to provide the best facilities for its visitors and access for all and to continue its essential conservation work and research into its unique collection of finds.

I understand that Vivacity is in discussion with the Heritage Lottery Fund about an application for funding. I encourage those discussions to continue and will, of course, keep a close eye on progress. Although it is protected as a scheduled ancient monument, the site is on Historic England’s at-risk register as it is gradually drying out, which threatens its continued survival. Historic England is conducting research and is in discussions with local stakeholders to find out whether site water levels can be raised; that is work in progress. My Department is working closely with Historic England to continue supporting British archaeology in all forms, from the first finds of an excavation to the preservation and research of our nation’s treasures. Promoting the skills necessary for the understanding, protection and management of the historic environment is something that we take incredibly seriously.

I had the privilege of attending the British Archaeological Awards, where Must Farm was described as not just Peterborough’s but Britain’s Pompeii and won the award for best archaeological discovery. I congratulate again all who have worked on that important excavation. The award was voted on by an independent panel of archaeologists and reflects the breathtaking preservation of the layers of human occupation uncovered by archaeologists at the site, which was all once lost to rising sea levels, 3,000 years ago. Although somewhat separated both in space and time, Flag Fen and Must Farm are part of the same extensive and well-preserved fen landscape. Together, they have unparalleled potential to illuminate life in bronze age Britain. Through Historic England, we will continue to work with the Flag Fen visitor centre to help it to resolve the current issues that threaten the preservation of the site and to assist it in making the most of the opportunities that come forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.