UNESCO delegates in China have voted 13-5 to strip Liverpool of its World Heritage Status with city region Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram calling the decision a ‘retrograde step’. Tony McDonough reports
Liverpool has lost its World Heritage Status (WHS) – an accolade it had held since 2004.
At a high-level meeting in China on Wednesday morning, UNESCO delegates voted by 13 votes to five, in a secret ballot, to delete Liverpool from the list of more than 1,000 WHS status sites around the world.
It brings an end to a row that has dragged on since 2012 when UNESCO first raised concerns about development along Liverpool’s world famous waterfront. Approval for Everton’s £500m stadium in the north docks has brought the matter to a head.
In June, UNESCO published a report which recommended Liverpool should be stripped of its WHS. And in China on Monday morning, delegates from countries across the world debated whether they should grant Liverpool a last-minute reprieve.
City leaders had asked UNESCO to visit Liverpool to get more up-to-date information. City region leaders, including Liverpool Mayor Joanne Anderson and Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram, as well as former ‘Minister for Merseyside’ Lord Heseltine, had written to UNESCO via the UK Government asking for more time.
Ms Anderson said she was “gutted” by the decision. She added: “I’m sad because I think UNESCO have got this completely wrong. For starters, the report that was drafted for the World Heritage Committee is littered with errors and unsubstantiated claims.
“The chief error is the assertion our World Heritage site has deteriorated. I’m sorry – that is patently untrue. It is quite the reverse. In fact, Liverpool’s site has never looked better… and the claim that Liverpool Waters has damaged the Outstanding Universal Value of the site is simply not the case.
“The fact is the original vision and plans for Liverpool Waters that so worried UNESCO officials, resulting in the city being put on the at-risk list in the first place – has not come to pass. Yes, there is some new development, but the forest of skyscrapers that raised alarm bells in the first place, simply hasn’t materialised.
“UNESCO asked for a moratorium on development in the city centre. They were told that went against UK planning law… But it’s clear now, that UNESCO didn’t want to see. Or listen. Or engage.
On the issue of Bramley Moore Dock, it was pointed out to UNESCO that Everton Football Club was investing £50m in the historic assets of the area. And by building a stadium there, people will for the first time be able to visit the dock, walk around it and learn about its past.
“The stadium is a win-win. The investment will revitalise our North Shore community, one of the poorest parts of the city – and England – and will inform and educate people about Liverpool’s story and how it shaped the world.”
Mr Rotheram added: “The Liverpool city region is a place with a rich and storied past. We are proud of our history and do not shy away from it. But our heritage is also a vital part of our regeneration.
“Today’s decision by UNESCO is a retrograde step that does not reflect the reality of what is happening on the ground. Indeed, this was a decision taken on the other side of the world by people who do not appear to understand the renaissance that has taken place in recent years.
“But many of the sites cited by UNESCO are in communities sorely in need of investment. Places like Liverpool should not be faced with the binary choice between maintaining heritage status or regenerating left behind communities – and the wealth of jobs and opportunities that come with it.
We did not want to lose our World Heritage Status, but nor could we allow it to preserve our region in aspic, while the world evolves around us.
“This is a really disappointing decision, but I am confident that our city will remain a vibrant and attractive cultural destination and – as we rebuild from the pandemic – will continue to welcome millions of people to our city and wider city region.”
At the discussion in China on Monday, a number of countries spoke in favour of deferring the decision. Hungary, Nigeria and Mali all spoke in favour of a reprieve. But other countries took a harder line including China, Bahrain and Guatemala.
Perhaps the most surprising intervention came from Norway, a country with strong historic links to Liverpool. Its delegates said postponing the decision would compromise the committee and its integrity. They believe there has been too much development on the waterfront and are in favour of deletion.
Last month Liverpool City Council published a report outlining how £700m has been invested in upgrading 119 heritage assets in the past few years with a further £800m to be invested in 40 assets over the next five years.
Liverpool received its World Heritage Status (WHS) in 2004 in recognition of its status as a ‘Maritime Mercantile City’ and how it became one of the world major hubs of trade in the 18th and 19 centuries.
However, in 2012 Liverpool was placed on the danger list due to new developments on the city’s waterfront. In particular, UNESCO was unhappy with the height of some of the proposed residential and commercial buildings included in Peel L&P’s 30-year £5bn Liverpool Waters project.
WHS covered Liverpool’s world famous waterfront vista, including the Pier Head and its Three Graces and much of the city centre. It doesn’t technically cover the northern docklands, owned by Peel Group, but the area is part of a so-called buffer zone.
UNESCO, which oversees 1,121 World Heritage Sites around the globe, regarded this distinction as semantic and sought to preserve the integrity of the buffer zone with the same zeal as the principle WHS site.
Both Peel L&P and Liverpool City Council attempted to placate the United Nations body by modifying the Liverpool Waters project. But the stand-off has come to a head following approval of Everton’s FC’s £500m stadium at Bramley Moore Dock, a development UNESCO considers “completely unacceptable”.
Today, Paul Cherpeau, chief executive of Liverpool Chamber of Commerce, said: “It would of course be better for Liverpool to retain World Heritage Status, but not at the expense of developing our city for the benefit of future generations.
“Liverpool has wonderful heritage assets and huge potential for growth; those two opportunities can co-exist in harmony and we must not try to play one off against the other. It’s a shame, therefore, that UNESCO has taken this decision without further investigation.
“In this wider context, the loss of World Heritage Status is a glancing blow, yet Liverpool remains steady in its pursuit of economic prosperity for the people who live and work here through the creation of jobs and opportunities to broaden our economic base.
“We have a high-quality visitor economy which is unlikely to be significantly undermined by this misguided decision, and we must move forward with confidence to pursue projects which will further strengthen our economic future without diluting our illustrious past.”