Yesterday, the Herald published an article by John McLellan complaining about UNESCO’s concerns regarding the adequacy of the planning system in protecting Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site.
This prompted me to write a letter to the paper, in which I defended UNESCO’s intervention as being consistent with its role in protecting the designations that it awards.
With the New Lanark/ Falls of Clyde case in mind, I also suggested that we need a debate about the effectiveness of World Heritage Status in protecting sites, and the possibility that the designation may inadvertently devalue important sites that enjoy lesser designations.
The letter is reproduced here:
John McLellan complains about people who are “unelected and appointed by the unaccountable” seeking to influence the outcome of planning decisions that affect Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site (“Heritage and the zeal for the Status Quo”, 25 February). Anyone who knows anything about World Heritage (and I know something, having led a four year-long campaign to prevent a multinational company from quarrying in the Buffer Zone of the New Lanark World Heritage Site), will know that much of what he writes is wrong. Neither James Simpson (the Vice President of ICOMOS-UK), nor “his cronies” (whoever they are) has a “direct line into Unesco”. Nor is the role of Unesco or its officials comparable to that of Angela Merkel or the European Union.
The fact is that the UK’s membership of Unesco did not compel the then Secretary of State for Scotland to put forward Edinburgh’s New and Old Towns to be awarded World Heritage Status by Unesco, any more than Nicola Sturgeon or Fiona Hyslop were compelled to support the nomination of the Forth Rail Bridge. For a site to be awarded World Heritage Status, it must fulfil specified criteria that demonstrate its “Outstanding Universal Value”. Thereafter, Unesco’s World Heritage Committee receives reports on its sites in order to evaluate their “state of conservation”. This is not only perfectly reasonable, but it would be negligent not to do so. There is nothing legally that Unesco can do to prevent a planning application that harms a site’s Outstanding Universal Value. If Edinburgh Castle were to be demolished and replaced by a Scottish Disneyland then doubtless Unesco would remove the city from its list. But it could do nothing to prevent it.
There is a debate to be had over the effectiveness of World Heritage Status in protecting its sites, and indeed whether it inadvertently devalues other important heritage assets that enjoy lesser designations,
However, in the absence of a single constructive suggestion it is unclear what function Mr McLellan’s article was intended to serve – other than perhaps performing the role of a therapeutic whinge.