Liverpool set for heritage showdown
Unesco’s objections to Liverpool Waters could see the city lose its world heritage status, says Mark Wilding
Liverpool’s world heritage status is under threat. Unesco was this week due to place the city on its list of sites at risk, a precursor to stripping it of the badge it granted in 2004.
Liverpool Waters, a £5.5 billion proposed development by Chapman Taylor, is the source of the problem. Unesco has warned that if developer Peel Holdings is allowed to realise its plans, the city’s heritage will be “irreversibly damaged”.
Unesco cited Liverpool as a “supreme example of a commercial port at the time of Britain’s greatest global influence”. But, as more details of Peel’s plans emerge, the organisation has grown increasingly concerned.
The city council gave its backing to Liverpool Waters in March this year, much to the dismay of the project’s critics. Supporters of the scheme cite the need to create jobs in the city, but Unesco was concerned enough to send three inspectors to assess the plans and the possible impact on the city’s heritage. They concluded that the scheme would cause “a serious loss of historical authenticity” and a report was issued recommending Liverpool be added to a list of at-risk heritage sites.
Few dispute that the 60ha derelict docklands site is need of regeneration, centring around Liverpool’s Pier Head — a landscape of derelict docks extending 2km along the waterfront.
About 40% of the redevelopment area is within the world heritage site and the plans include around 9,000 homes, 300,000sq m of offices, 50,000 sq m of hotel and conference facilities, shops, cafes, restaurants and more than 400,000sq m of parking.
But much of the objection to the scheme is focused on a cluster of tall buildings, the highest of which reaches 55 storeys, and only some believe Liverpool’s world heritage status is a price worth paying in pursuit of the development.
Frank McKenna, chairman of Downtown Liverpool in Business, is one of them. “If we lose it, Liverpool will not be the first or the last great city to have its world heritage status revoked,” he says.
“It’s time to put this wrangling behind us and look to the future, rather than dwelling on our past. In Liverpool, we know we have a world-class city and without world heritage status to worry about, we can set about really proving it.”
Liverpool City Council has signalled that it won’t be forced into a U-turn on the issue. The authority’s planning officers warned that the city was likely to be stripped of its heritage status if the project went ahead. Councillors decided that the risk was worth taking, and resolved to grant permission. That risk has now become reality, but the council remains defiant.
A council spokesman says: “The main concerns raised about heritage issues on Liverpool Waters will not become an issue for several years as they focus on later stages of the project — they will not be built for at least 10 years. Detailed plans may be subject to change before them.”
Unesco is far from alone in objecting to Peel’s solution. English Heritage concluded that “the public benefits delivered by this development would have to be very substantial to outweigh the level of harm that we have identified”.
Neither were objections limited to the impact on the city’s heritage. Design Council Cabe said that the planning application “does not provide the confidence that a high quality scheme will emerge”.
A public inquiry would provide a last opportunity for the heritage lobby to argue its case
The fate of the scheme now rests with communities secretary Eric Pickles, who must decide whether a final decision should be taken by the government.
Writing to Unesco in February this year, Paul Blaker, head of world heritage at the Department for Culture Media & Sport, said if the application is indeed “called in”, a public inquiry is likely.
Both Peel Holdings and Chapman Taylor declined to comment on the latest developments from Unesco. But Peel’s developments director, Lindsey Ashworth, has previously said that the company would give up on the project should a public inquiry be called.
Despite this threat, critics of the scheme shouldn’t hold their breaths. Any developer that lays claim to submitting the largest planning application in the UK must also know a public inquiry is a distinct possibility.
A public inquiry would provide one last opportunity for the heritage lobby to argue its case. The decision ultimately rests on whether the scheme’s commercial benefits outweigh the alleged damage that would be caused to the city’s heritage.
When it comes to expert opinion, Unesco is a heavyweight. But its concerns are not exactly new. If Liverpool’s councillors were unpersuaded, will Pickles take a different view?
Dresden: Europe’s first world heritage loss
Germany was the first European country to lose a world heritage site when Dresden lost its status in 2009 over objections to the four-lane Waldschlösschen bridge. The new bridge across the Elbe, designed by engineer ESKR and architect Kolb & Ripke, is located just over a mile from Dresden’s historic centre centre.
The decision has had no impact on tourists visiting the city. According to official figures, the number of visitors in 2010 stood at 1.6 million, and rose to 1.8 million the following year.
Often dubbed “Florence on the Elbe”, the city sustained a three-day bombing campaign by British and American planes at the end of the second world war that destroyed 90% of the