Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Another turn round the plughole? Commercial Archaeology in Northern Ireland in 2014

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As we rapidly plunge towards the end of another year, many people’s minds turn to Yule festivities, gifting, feasting, quaffing and all the joys that the Winter Solstice has to offer. For myself, I find my mind turning to the financial health of the archaeological sector in Northern Ireland, because that’s just how I roll. In what is becoming something of a year-end tradition, I’ve been looking at a number of Key Financials for the four main archaeological consultancies in Northern Ireland. Previous posts have analysed the period from 2011-2012 and 2013. A recent post on the commercial archaeological sector in the Republic of Ireland made use of a Tableau dashboard to display the data and allow a degree of user interactivity beyond the traditional static images of graphs and tables [here]. I have attempted to do the same with the Northern Irish data and the dashboard is available at the end of this post, or directly on the Tableau Public server: here. For anyone not familiar with how this dashboard works, I would recommend taking a look at my notes on the Republic of Ireland one [here] as they are largely identical. As before, I have chosen to only refer to the individual companies by their year of incorporation, but (based on the legal advice given to me) I have provided an Appendix where the reader can link directly to the records I have based my calculations on and the real names of the companies involved [here].

Screenshot of the completed vizualisation
Since my last post on this topic, 2014 data has become available and it’s time to take a look at how things have changed. In the first instance, I should say that the 1990 company appears to be defunct, or at least not complying with the requirement to submit accounts to Companies House, as the last available accounts are for the year 2011. As these have been discussed in depth previously, I won’t go over the same ground again.

1997 Co. 2008-2014
The 1997 company appear to have had a modestly successful year. Their Cash at Bank is up to £1,535 from a paltry £325 in 2013, though far below their record of £33k in 2008. Their Current Liabilities have decreased markedly to -£61K from an historic high of -£108K the previous year, though they have some way to go to meet their best recorded return of -£33.5K from 2012. Current Assets have fallen slightly from £99K in 2013 to £78.5K in 2014, but still far below the £260K recorded in 2008. As has been noted previously, a large portion of the Current Assets value can be made up of monies owed to the company. It is only speculation, but it may be the case that this outfit managed to make good on a number of outstanding debts and used that cash flow to offset their own liabilities. The overall Net Worth of the company has improved somewhat from the -£6K of 2013 to £22K in 2014. While there is a marked, if stuttering, improvement on 2011s all-time low of -£24K, the most recent figures are far below the 2008 high of £188K.

2002 Co. 2008-2014
The 2002 company have also had a moderately successful year. Their Cash at Bank has risen slightly to £3,663 from £2,382 in 2013, though this is significantly poorer than the 2009 return of £51K. Good progress has also been made on the amount of Current Liabilities carried by this firm as the figure has dropped to -£86K from -£105K the year before, and is substantially better than the 2008 maximum of -£144K. Like the Cash at Bank figures, the Current Assets have taken a marginal upturn in 2014 to £38K from £27K in 2013, but still lag far behind their 2008 high of £376K. The Net Worth metric shows the same general pattern of a rise to -£41K in 2014 from -£70K in 2013, their worst year on record. All this is far below their record years of 2008 and 2009 where the 2002 company returned Net Worths of £259K and £258K, respectively.

2005 Co. 2008-2014
The youngest company on the list, incorporated in 2005 had a rather mixed year. Their Cash at Bank plummeted from £86K in 2013 to £24K in 2014, though still well above their worst year on record (2012), when they recorded a mere £4,643. They have also made a spectacular recovery in terms of their Current Liabilities. These stood at -£90.5K in 2013, but have been reigned back to -£7,750, around the same levels as seen in the period around 2010 and 2011. Current Assets have also fallen from an all-time high of £152K in 2013 to £37K in 2014. No more than before, I would speculate that some of this movement may be interpreted as having received payment of a substantial portion of the monies owed incorporated in the Current Assets figure and using some of that, along with a portion of 2013s Cash at Bank to pay off a substantial portion of the company’s liabilities. Finally, the Net Worth shows a significant decline to £29.5K from £61.5K in 2013. While comfortably above 2011s historic low of £9,945, it is far short of the £90K returned for 2008 and 2009.

Summed financial values for all NI Companies 2007-2014
The first thing I would say about the overall picture gained from combining all data from all companies (Absolute Values) is that it reminds me of a line drawing of a Colonial Viper spaceship from Battlestar Galactica banking to port … but that’s probably just me (this may also be an indicator as to why it was a good idea for me not to follow my father into a career in accountancy). In the first instance, the Cash at Bank figures have fallen markedly. The Absolute Values show a fall to £29K, from £88.5K in 2013, putting the 2014 results in line with some of the worst years on record: 2010 (£24K), 2011 (£26.5K), and 2012 (£23.5K), and significantly down on the peak of £135K recorded in 2009. In terms of Current Assets, 2014 has been the worst year on record, with a figure of only £154K recorded. This is down from £278K in 2013, and well below the massive £2.7M recorded in 2008. As stated previously, this may be the result of concerted efforts to recover debts and pay off creditors, but it is impossible to state with any certainty. Again, it is only speculation, but this may be a result of bad debts being written off as uncollectable, or it may be a combination of a number of complex factors. It would appear that the one piece of clear good news in the sector is the continued reduction in Current Liabilities. In 2014 this is down to an historic low of -£155K from a maximum of -£2M in 2008 and -£304K in 2013. Taken as whole, the Net Worth of the sector rose to £10K in 2014 from -£15K the previous year. While there is some grounds for celebration at a return to overall profitability, this is far, far below the sector Net Worth of £781K recorded in 2009, or the £768.5K from 2008.

With the exception of the Current Liabilities data, the trend lines here are all on the way down. Viewing it in the most optimistic light would only allow me to say that the Cash at Bank trend is flat. This is nothing to celebrate for these companies. The results for 2014 may be marginally better than those for the previous year, but the sector has collapsed and shows no real signs of regeneration. There is no evidence of any green shoots of recovery. The best picture that can be drawn here is one of continued stagnation, if not slow degeneration and destruction.

As I’ve always tried to make clear, my posts regarding the financial health of these enterprises are not ends in themselves, but a means of examining the fragility of the commercial archaeological sector. Most importantly, this data illustrates the vulnerability of the site archives that these companies hold. Should one of these groups finally slip over the edge and be forced to wind up their operations, there is a huge potential for a large number of important but unpublished archives to be permanently lost to scholarship. The last time I wrote on this subject, I noted that there was no movement from the NIEA to address this continuing crisis. As far as I can ascertain, nothing has changed on this front. However, in October 2014, I thought that a potential answer may lie in the high quality work of the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork at QUB. However, in 2015 it lost its funding and at the time of writing operates in a much reduced capacity.

Despite everything, it would appear that 2014 has been the bleakest year on record for commercial sector archaeology in Northern Ireland. In October of last year I ended my post with this:

“In the meantime we can only wait for the 2014 figures and see if genuine recovery materialises or the slow circling of the plughole continues.”

Well, no recovery materialised and the slow circling continues … I wonder what developments 2015 will bring?


For the best viewing experience of the Tableau dashboard, I would recommend going to Full Screen mode (F11) … there will be less scrolling needed!