WESTMINSTER is in danger. At least, that’s what the UN thinks. Unesco’s World Heritage arm wants planned developments to the south of the Thames scaled back because they will interfere with sightlines to the Palace of Westminster. If the intended high-rise buildings at Waterloo, Elephant and Castle and a number of other sites aren’t shrunk, the global bureaucrats warn, London will find itself on the so-called danger list, alongside Afghanistan’s Bamiyan valley and Samarra in Iraq.
Bring it on. Moments like this only reveal the absurdity of the current World Heritage system. Back in 2011, the same group complained that the Shard – now an acknowledged wonder of the London skyline – would imperil the Tower of London’s status. Liverpool is already the only western European site on the watchlist, for “lack of overall management of new developments”.
We should start treating these warnings as a badge of pride. Just as Britain is beginning a long-overdue national conversation about the relevance of remaining part of the EU, we should reconsider whether London’s historical treasures really need the attentions of a supranational nanny to keep them safe.
The World Heritage system began well enough, with the world coming together to rescue the temples of Abu Simbel in the 1960s. But the current system, with its swelling list of monuments marked down for UN oversight, only dates from the 1970s.
The 1970s are rightly economically infamous – stagflation and malaise were the inevitable results of swollen state bureaucracies and a world in love with the power of central planning. The World Heritage list system itself is in many respects a monument – to the follies of the era in which it was created.
Heritage matters, but the best way to preserve it is not through abdicating responsibility to the expertise of a single, distant body. Private, competing, voluntary institutions like the excellent World Monuments Fund (WMF) are far more responsive and alive to the complexity of the issues on the ground. It is heartening that Britain has the WMF’s largest affiliate office outside its New York headquarters.
Meanwhile, the judgement of English Heritage is in question. It stands with Unesco against the design of the redevelopment project in Waterloo, just as it stood against a new headquarters for UBS on the Broadgate estate in 2011, until City A.M.’s successful campaign helped counter its resistance.
Heritage does not have to be anti-growth. The smartest heritage projects are about using tourist revenue to pay for the protection of monuments and to help reinvigorate local economies – one reason why schemes are not necessarily best run by civil servants and quangos. Preservation has to make economic sense.
London is so different from Paris or Rome precisely because, unlike those frozen capitals, our city still manages to mingle the ancient alongside the restless churn of the new. It is a living city, not a museum-piece. Orders to tear up plans for major developments, without thought for the economic consequences, reveal an obsession with the past at the cost of the future. If that’s what World Heritage status means, Britain is better off out.