Over the festive holiday period hundreds of visitors to the Falls of Clyde signed letters to Marco Biagi, the newly-appointed Minister for Local Government and Community Empowerment, urging him to reject a proposal to establish a quarry on the site.

They followed the 12,000 visitors who signed letters objecting to the proposed quarry – which would fall within the Buffer Zone of the New Lanark World Heritage Site – when it was under consideration by South Lanarkshire Council. Remarkably, these objectors were drawn from 35 countries, every Parliamentary constituency in Scotland and every ward in 15 adjoining local authorities. The objectors therefore included both international tourists and day-trippers from some of the most deprived communities in Europe. Accepting that the application was contrary to its own policies, the council nonetheless approved it in December 2013.

An array of heritage organisations joined the local group, Save Our Landscapes (SOL), in requesting the Scottish Government to ‘call-in’ the application. This it did and the application was considered by Reporters at a Hearing in August. Their recommendations will be considered by Scottish Government, and a decision made by Ministers.

The wonder is that the application was ever submitted in the first place. The Falls of Clyde form a designed landscape that Historic Scotland described as being ‘intimately bound up with the value of the [New Lanark World Heritage] site.’ The nomination document, signed by Donald Dewar as First Minister, explicitly assured UNESCO that the area was protected from quarrying.

Yet a few years after World Heritage status was secured, the multinational company Cemex – revealed by a Herald investigation to have been fined repeatedly for environmental violations – expressed interest in extracting three million tonnes of sand from the area adjacent to the Falls. Incomprehensibly, Historic Scotland indicated that it had no objection to these plans. Documentation obtained under Freedom of Information demonstrates that the decision was made after only the most cursory analysis.

Having considered Historic Scotland’s response to evidence presented by SOL, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee formally expressed grave concern about the proposed quarry. At the Hearing, Historic Scotland found itself isolated by a coalition that included, in addition to SOL, the UK Committee of ICOMOS (the body that advises UNESCO), the New Lanark Trust, the Garden History Society, and the Royal Burgh of Lanark Community Council.

This case is undoubtedly an emblematic test of the Scottish Government’s strategy of ‘mainstreaming’ heritage. Its new strategy document, Our Place in Time, maintains that ‘encouraging communities to engage with their historic environment leads to a sense of ownership and empowerment at the local level.’ Scottish Planning Policy now officially recognises the historic environment as being ‘a key cultural and economic asset and a source of inspiration that should be seen as integral to creating successful places.’

These priorities resonate with the flowering of community-led initiatives. SOL’s proposals to enhance access to and understanding of the Falls have been tested through extensive public consultation, which showed that they would attract more visitors and boost the local economy. A Facebook group dedicated to Lost Houses of the Clyde Valley has 800 members, and runs popular site visits. Another group dedicated to establishing interpretation boards throughout the Clyde Valley held its inaugural meeting last week.

For too long heritage has been a treated as an inconvenient impediment to economic growth. Abundant supplies of sand elsewhere in the region mean that there is no trade-off in this case. This only emphasises quite how damaging to public confidence a decision to indulge Cemex would be. The people of Scotland deserve better.

Mark Stephens is Chair of Save Our Landscapes

This article was first published in The Herald, 5 January 2015 (Minor edit, 12 February 2015)


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