KEN HOUSTON says Edinburgh’s UNESCO accolade should be quietly dropped.
Only two locations in the world – a sanctuary in Oman and the Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany – have ever been delisted as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Now, according to newspaper reports, the same consequence may be facing a third – the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh, following concerns expressed by UNESCO officials to the UK government about recent developments planned or in progress.
Indeed no less than seven development schemes have been singled out by UNESCO’s ‘advisors’ who in a “damning dossier” (in the words of the Edinburgh Evening News) have complained that the balance in favour of conservation has been tipped too far towards development.
There has even been an intervention from Mechtild Rossler, the ‘Director of the Division for Heritage and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre’ who has written to the City of Edinburgh Council stating her misgivings about the proposal to turn the former Royal High School building into a luxury hotel (rejected by the council although there may be an appeal).
Ms Rossler has a pedigree in heritage and planning matters as long as two arms, her CV including having manged the team of the History, Memory and Dialogue Section (HMD) dealing with the Slave Route, Silk Road Platform and the UNESCO Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture.
All very impressive but I wonder how much Ms Rossler really knows about the history of business and trade in Edinburgh and the structural changes required for this to continue to progress.
It rather brings to mind a riposte by the comedian, Ken Dodd, to Freud’s observation that a laugh is a conservation of psychic energy. “The problem with Freud,” joked Doddy, “is that he never had to play the Glasgow Empire second house on a Friday night”.
According to Adam Wilkinson, director of Edinburgh World Heritage, loss of World Heritage status could result from the decision by councillors to approve the controversial ‘ribbon’ hotel which is a key part of the St James redevelopment scheme.
To which others might respond: Well, let’s bring it on. World Heritage status has become more trouble than it’s worth. True, the title may be of some use in marketing the city to a higher-echelon tourist/leisure audience but in sending out a signal that Edinburgh city centre is ‘closed for development’ (at least on any large scale) the harm this does to the wider economy is significantly greater.
Sadly, it is not only UNESCO that sends out anti-development signals, the local heritage lobby and the yoghurt-knitters who man the council’s planning department are right up there too.
Thankfully councillors sensibly overturned the recommendation of its own planners to refuse the ‘ribbon’ design of the St James hotel – just as they did a few years ago when the same planners recommended refusal of a mixed-use scheme in a block of redundant shops at the west end of Princes Street on the basis that this was “zoned for retail”. Rather than lying empty these premises are trading again – and paying income to the council thought business rates.
True, the planners insist they were not against a hotel in principle, simply the size and detail of the design.
However, by its very nature, architecture is subjective. One man’s palace will be another’s carbuncle.
On a personal note, I believe the design created by the architects of the St James Hotel is superb example of positively thinking outside the box and I’m convinced it will eventually complement the skyline, despite this being one of the main objections to the building.
As an example one might consider the way St Paul’s cathedral and ‘The Gherkin’ office building – officially 30 St Mary Axe – share the skyline of the City of London; two iconic buildings from different ages but which join in unison to reflect 300 years of the history of ‘The City’.
Part of the problem with Edinburgh and World Heritage status is that by taking in the Old and New Towns the latter covers almost the entire city centre. There are 29 World Heritage sites in the UK and almost all of them are restricted to a single building, group of buildings or a natural asset (e.g. Durham Cathedral, the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey and the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland). The only thing that comes close to Edinburgh is central Liverpool – and even there WH status is confined to the waterfront.
It is just as well that Edinburgh’s WH status did not extend to the Lothian Road area, or there would be no new central business district, ‘The Exchange’, the site of which was carved out mainly from redundant railway goods land, and which brought new life to a part of the city centre commercially dying on its feet.
With such sensitivity about new-build and even façade retention (i.e. new retail or office facilities constructed behind the original frontage) where would the likes of Standard Life and Scottish Widows who currently occupy The Exchange have gone? The Gyle, or a second massive business park at Straiton perhaps? Or Glasgow, Manchester or Leeds?
Either way the result would have been a massive increase in car-commuting in addition to a huge drop in retail spend in the city centre from Monday to Friday.
According to Mr Wilkinson of EWH, World Heritage status drives “social, economic and environmental benefits for residents, business and visitors” in Edinburgh since the title was granted in 1995 but there has been no detailed financial analysis to confirm the veracity or otherwise of this claim.
I suspect World Heritage status is favoured by the type of people for whom Edinburgh is a Disneyesque hobby rather than a living, breathing, city dependent on the type of structure that encourages trade and wealth-creation. The time has surely come to let it – quietly – slip.