Unesco can keep its pickling jars, writes David Rudlin

David Rudlin_index

The defenestration of Liverpool by Unesco reminded me of the story of Manchester being the only city to campaign against World Heritage Site status.

Usually cities mount expensive campaigns to be recognised as World Heritage Sites. They are attracted by the kudos and tourism that comes from being ranked alongside sites like the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids. Indeed one of the criticisms of the process is that rich western countries with the resources to assemble expensive bids are over-represented on the list. Not Manchester, whose decision to opt out of the process looks to have been validated by the recent humiliation of Liverpool.

The World Heritage Site process involves each country drawing up a tentative list of possible sites. The current UK list includes Chatham Docks, “Darwin’s Landscape Laboratory” wherever that is, two monasteries in Jarrow and Wearmouth and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Sites from the tentative list can be put forward as nominations and are considered by various committees which make a recommendation to the World Heritage Committee. The recent designation of the slate mines of Gwynedd brought the UK total of sites back up to 32 after Liverpool’s deletion.

Manchester was included on the UK tentative list in 1999 due in large part to the efforts of the late Robina McNeil, a lecturer at Manchester University who became Greater Manchester’s county archaeologist. She put together a compelling case for a World Heritage Site stretching from the Duke of Bridgewater’s mines in Worsley along the world’s first industrial canal into Castlefield. This area includes Dukes Warehouse (the first canal/road interchange) and Liverpool Road (the world’s first railway station). From there the nomination stretched along the Rochdale Canal, carefully avoiding the city centre, to include Ancoats (the world’s first industrial estate) with its vast multi-storey mills.

It’s hard to imagine a more important example of industrial heritage. Indeed Manchester sat on the tentative list alongside the Derwent Valley Mills, Saltaire, New Lanark and, of course, Liverpool – all of which became World Heritage Sites. But Manchester city council actively lobbied to be removed from the list.

The heritage community attributed Manchester’s attitude to its distain for its own heritage. As Julian Holder wrote in English Heritage’s book on Ancoats in 2011: “Many saw them [the mills in Ancoats] as merely an embarrassment and an impediment to Manchester’s attempts to find a new post-industrial role.” It is true that the city council sometimes saw the heritage community as middle-class do-gooders prepared to sacrifice the city’s future for the sake of a past tainted by slavery, the exploitation of the working class and bad Victorian architecture. I can recall an incident when the Heritage Advisory Committee made the fatal political faux pas of objecting to a new disabled access ramp to the town hall and managed to alienate most of the city’s political class.

However by the time that the city was included on the tentative list, the fraught politics of the politically correct Left had been replaced by the pragmatism of the Sir Howard and Sir Richard era. They had nothing against the heritage of the city, they just didn’t like being told what to do especially if it involved anyone questioning the growth of the city!

Since that time Ancoats and Castlefield have been regenerated and the mills and industrial infrastructure have been carefully restored. Sure this has involved lots of shiny new buildings including towers. These towers are not generally within each of the designated conservation areas, but they come to within metres of their boundaries and dominate their skyline. No doubt Unesco would have been horrified and would have delisted Manchester along with Liverpool.

>> Henrietta Billings: Liverpool’s loss is a salutary lesson for the UK’s remaining World Heritage Sites


It is tempting to say that there is no place for World Heritage Site status within living cities because Unesco doesn’t seem to recognise that cities constantly change and grow and that is a good thing. The purists may want the derelict docks of Liverpool conserved as a monument to long-lost greatness. But the Scouse merchant princes who built them would have embraced the brash confidence of Liverpool Waters just as the Victorian merchants of Manchester would have loved the city’s current clutch of towers.

Back in the 1960s Donald Insall in his ground-breaking report on the conservation of Chester wrote that: “Conservation is for marmalade.” He argued that cities should not be set in aspic but must be allowed to grow and develop while retaining their character.

It is a founding principle of the heritage movement, but one that Unesco seems yet to understand.