Andrew Tettenborn

Do we really need lectures from Unesco on our heritage?

(Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)

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.

There is a strong argument that something is wrong here

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.

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