Do we really need lectures from Unesco on our heritage?

8 August 2021

5:05 AM

8 August 2021

5:05 AM

You could describe the UK planning system as a giant whispering gallery where landowners, pressure groups and developers all seek to bend policy their way. One such group is Unesco, an organisation with an inveterate habit of telling the British administration what to do about particular places in Britain and threatening consequences if it is disobeyed. You may not have heard a great deal about it’s behaviour: but recent events show that you should take notice of it.

Under an obscure convention of 1972, the World Heritage Convention, Unesco nominates a number of world heritage sites from lists submitted by governments. There are currently about 1,000 of these; 28 are in the UK. Listing gives no status, but states pay a subscription and have a technical right to ask for international help in looking after such sites.

Last week the importance of this regime came to a head. The courts temporarily stymied government plans to bury underground the main road passing a few hundred yards south of Stonehenge. The reason was, effectively, that the plan that would destroy archaeological remains, and because Stonehenge was one of the 28 UK sites this was something the government had to regard as being of overwhelming importance and therefore refuse to permit the scheme. This was precisely what Unesco wanted. A few weeks earlier it had essentially ordered the government to block the proposal, murmuring threats about the heritage status of Stonehenge if it was disobeyed.

Nor was that the only attack this year on the UK planning process. On Merseyside, where the river frontage is another heritage site, the authorities a few years ago pushed for big riverside redevelopment just down from the Liver Building, including a super-modern stadium for Everton FC. The relevant Unesco committee made no secret that it wanted the scheme stopped. Following an impeccably democratic consultation, the go-ahead was nevertheless given. Infuriated at its orders being ignored, just over a couple of weeks ago Unesco peremptorily delisted the Liverpool waterfront.

Attempts of this kind by Unesco to muscle in on planning policy are nothing new. In 2007 it criticised high-rise developments in the City, and suggested that the heritage status of the Tower of London might be endangered unless they were stopped. In 2013 it similarly sought to dictate what building should be allowed in and around Westminster, where the Houses of Parliament is another heritage site; and in Cornwall it intervened big-time in plans to regenerate Hayle Harbour (with repercussions still continuing), and expressed reservations about allowing the resumption of tin-mining at South Crofty. Nor was this pressure limited to the UK. Despite Germany’s impeccable environmental credentials, in the 2000s Unesco similarly sought to block the building of a new road bridge across the Elbe at Dresden, another world heritage site, to clear congestion from the city.

There is a strong argument that something is wrong here. True, some element of international pressure against blatant cultural vandalism is clearly justified. Indeed, the 1972 convention was partly sparked by outrage at Egypt’s philistine proposal in the 1960s to build the Aswan High Dam and thereby inundate the ancient temples at Abu Simbel. But that was an extreme instance. Where there is a functioning and balanced planning system, as in Britain, there is little case for encouraging competing interventions from international bodies, especially those run by Unesco, whose mismanagement was such that the UK withdrew entirely between 1986 and 1997, and whose freedom from political jobbery in deciding which sites to declare as world heritage sites is still open to question.

This is particularly true of interventions that would see sites preserved in a kind of cosmopolitan bureaucratic aspic rather than allowed to develop organically. This was arguably the case with Liverpool and the City of London; and it was clearly so in Cornwall, where the irony of objecting to actual tin-mining because it would ruin the character of Cornwall as a picturesque tin-mining museum seems to have been lost on the cultural apparatchiks of Unesco.

And, of course, this is before you start with the difficulty attending all intervention by international entities, however well-meaning: the democratic deficit. Advanced western countries (which have far more than their fair share of Unesco heritage sites) rightly entrust delicate matters of environment and development to elected governments or municipalities, forced to make tough choices and responsible to voters if they fail to make them well. Unesco could not be more different. In matters of aesthetics, or the trade-off between jobs and conservation, it prefers to supplant democracy with technocracy; to substitute for the views of local electors the opinions of experts retained by it and responsible to no-one; and if necessary to bully and threaten elected bodies until it gets its way. No wonder eyebrows have been raised about the exercise.

There may be hope, however. When Liverpool’s planners decided to back the riverside redevelopment and Unesco retaliated by striking the Mersey frontage from its list, some undoubtedly saw this as a moment of ignominy brought on by stupid exceptionalism. But many did not. The Mayors of Liverpool and Merseyside, for example, made the sensible point that if they had to choose between rejuvenation without world heritage status and decline with it, they preferred the former. Nor were they the first authority to call Unesco’s bluff. Remember Dresden? Dresden weighed matters and built the bridge. The city was duly delisted in 2009. There’s no indication that it suffered seriously. (Nor was there much wrong with the bridge, an aesthetically pleasing and rather harmonious concrete bowstring structure that blends in rather well.)

On Stonehenge, where the planners and the elected government want the tunnel, we must be prepared to say boo again to the Unesco goose. We should build it, if necessary using legislation. If as a result the UK only has 27 heritage sites next year, so be it. Few if any people travelling to staycations in the West Country will notice much difference, except that their journey may be rather quicker. One group will however see a big difference. For the first time in about a hundred years visitors to Stonehenge itself will be left to savour the peace they deserve without having to watch queues of slow-moving caravans.<//>

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