Could Liverpool lose its Unesco World Heritage status?

The Albert Dock, Liverpool, with the Liver Building in the background.
Image caption The Albert Dock with the Royal Liver Building in the background

Concern is growing that Liverpool could lose its World Heritage status amid plans for development along the city's waterfront. But could it really happen and, if so, what would it mean?

It is the city that spawned the Beatles, two of England's most famous football clubs and a rich history of shipbuilding and maritime commerce.

More recently, Liverpool has emerged from industrial decline to reinvent itself as a modern urban centre, packed with retail and entertainment, and successfully bidding for the title of European Capital of Culture in 2008.

The city was also granted World Heritage Status in 2004, in honour of its waterfront and the trio of impressive Edwardian buildings known as the Three Graces.

Other World Heritage sites around the world include the pyramids of Egypt, the Grand Canyon and the Taj Mahal.

But the approval of the £5.5bn Liverpool Waters scheme in 2012 has thrown that status into doubt.

Image caption The Royal Liver Building at night, with Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral visible on the right

Unesco has expressed "deep concern" about the 30-year project, which features plans to develop 60 hectares of dockland with apartments, 30-storey towers and a cruise liner terminal.

The United Nations' cultural organisation says the development could affect the character of the area.

It led to the city being entered into Unesco's "danger list" five years ago, but only recently has the possibility of complete status-removal been mooted.

The issue is due to be discussed again later by a meeting of the United Nations Heritage Committee in Krakow, Poland, during a 10-day conference.

Unesco has said it "cannot speculate" about how the situation will develop, but a final decision is expected next year.

Before then, the organisation is seeking assurances that "appropriate corrective measures" are made to the city's regeneration plans.

Image copyright Peel Land and Property
Image caption An artist's impression of how the waterfront could eventually look following the Liverpool Waters development

The German city of Dresden is the only location to have lost its World Heritage status.

Unesco said the construction of a controversial bridge marred views of the city's magnificent baroque palaces.

Heritage campaigners are quietly hopeful that Liverpool will not follow the same path, but they have warned against complacency.

Save Britain's Heritage said the Merseyside capital had been given a "final warning".

Henrietta Billings, its director, said: "International heritage status doesn't just put Liverpool on the world stage, it brings cultural tourism, urban regeneration and sustainable visitor attractions.

"Losing it because of crass planning decisions would be an international embarrassment as well as a hugely costly mistake."

Image copyright Peel Land and Property
Image caption A daylight view of how the waterfront might look after the planned £5.5bn development
Image copyright RIBA collections
Image caption A view of some of the more modern buildings that already make up the Pier Head area

She said the situation had deteriorated to a "critical point" and if the city did not "get its house in order" it must face the consequences.

"It really is a major deal. No other location apart from Dresden has lost its status and this is not something the city wants to be associated with.

"It sends a message out about how you should look after a World Heritage site. It's a privilege to have such a badge of honour. Liverpool signed up to this stewardship and has responsibilities that come with that.

"These are sites that are not only important to the local area but to Britain and the world."

Jean Grant, vice-chairman of Merseyside Civic Society, said she sympathised with Unesco's position, but said the organisation should "have confidence" that the city would not willingly harm its own heritage.

Previous developments in Liverpool have taken great care to respect the character of the historic centre, she said.

Image caption Albert Dock, pictured here in 1999, has been regenerated and features shops and restaurants

"I think they need to have a bit more understanding about what the city has already done to preserve the area around the docks.

"I think it's a bit unfair. We are dealing with a city of enormous complexity. The Albert Dock has been completely regenerated, as has the Pier Head and the area in all directions.

"Developers have the technology and the ability to appreciate what they're doing. It wouldn't be in their interests to harm the area."

Officials at Liverpool City Council, however, are confident they can find a solution.

Mark Kitts, chairman of Liverpool's World Heritage Site steering group, said has called on Unesco to engage with the city and find a "common way forward".

This could involve seeking to make changes to the plans, or convincing the organisation that such an approach will not be necessary.

Finding a way to "reduce the geography" of the World Heritage site could also be on the table, Mr Kitts said.

Image copyright William Starkey
Image caption Liverpool is famous for its waterfront and attractive civic buildings

But Mr Kitts said the city's priority had to be modernisation, balancing the economy and creating jobs.

"I think it's partly down to dialogue. We've invited Unesco to come to the city three times in the last 12 months, but have never heard back," he said.

"It's about having having a dialogue to make sure everyone understands what's being discussed in terms of the need to grow the city's economy and in terms of celebrating the city's heritage."

In the worst-case scenario of Liverpool losing its status, Mr Kitts does not believe there would be a knock-on effect on tourism.

The city does not rely on the status as a way to promote itself, and has plenty to offer visitors, however it is labelled, he said.

"The city is known for many different things. The history is just one thing. There is the culture, the fashion, the retail scene.

"We would still have a city that is World Heritage standard. It would still be about celebrating the city's historic status."

A spokesman for Liverpool City Council said: "We need to balance the fact that we need to regenerate and we need to balance the economy.

"[But] if it comes down to a straight choice between having Unesco's World Heritage title or creating jobs, the city will have to go with regeneration.

"Ironically, Liverpool's docks were originally all about entrepreneurship and building the city's economy. We think we can strike a balance."

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