A month ago the UK acquired its 31st World Heritage Site. The English Lake District has been ‘inscribed’ on the list of such sites that is organised under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (UNESCO).
The Lake District is recognised as having world-important status because of its glacier-moulded topography, the ‘harmonious landscape’ modified though agriculture, its great houses, gardens and parks and its influence on the poets and artists of the Picturesque and Romantic movements.
The Lake District was also important for fostering an awareness of the importance of beautiful landscapes and for inspiring early efforts to preserve them.
This was not the first time that the Lake District had been nominated as a World Heritage Site. In 1987 a large package of nomination papers was delivered to UNESCO, detailing the grounds on which the nomination of the Lake District National Park was founded. It begins ‘The Lake District National Park is proposed for listing under the World Heritage Convention as a property having outstanding international importance for its combination of the works of nature and of man.’
And that was why the bid failed at that time; there was then no mechanism for a World Heritage Site to combine both ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ aspects – it had to be one or the other.
The first UK World Heritage Sites, dating from 1986, included Studley Royal and Fountains Abbey.
There were three other ‘cultural’ sites – Ironbridge, Durham Cathedral and Castle and Stonehenge and Avebury and two ‘natural’ sites, the Giant’s Causeway and the Island of St Kilda.
In the following year – the year of the Lake District nomination – the successful UK candidates were all ‘cultural’.
They were Blenheim Palace, the City of Bath, the Frontiers of the Roman Empire (Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall) and the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey.
All these took their place alongside structures like the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China, the Galapagos Islands and the Yellowstone National Park, the last two being among the first 12 World Heritage Sites designated in 1978. Since then the number of sites has grown to 1073. Of them, 823 are ‘cultural’ sites and 206 are ‘natural’. That leaves 35 others – including the Lake District.
The criteria for inclusion have been modified so that these mixed sites can now be considered. The designation of St Kilda was modified from ‘natural’ to ‘mixed’ in 2005, so, with the recent addition of the Lake District, the UK now has two mixed sites.
There are 25 ‘cultural’ sites (including Yorkshire’s second, Saltaire) and four ‘natural’ ones; two of the latter are The Giant’s Causeway and the Dorset and East Devon (‘Jurassic’) coast. The other two you may not have heard of, for although they are British they are far away – Henderson Island in the eastern South Pacific, and Gough Island and Inaccessible Island in the South Atlantic.
We in Britain might think that it is a badge of singular honour to succeed in having a property added to the list – we have more suggestions in the queue, including Chatham Dockyard, Scotland’s Flow Country and the Twin Monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow.
The city of York is also hoping to take its place on the list. And there is a supra-national bid to have the Great Spas of Europe recognised as a World Heritage Site. It includes spas like Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic, Baden Baden in Germany, Vichy in France and, of course Spa in Belgium.
In Britain it includes Bath, but not Harrogate.
In some countries, though, World Heritage Site designation has been opposed. There have been fears – in places as diverse as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Old Quarter of Panama City – that such status has increased tourism to an unsustainable level.
In other places, like the city of Asmara in Eritrea, the attempt to lure more tourists has put an unstainable strain on the national economy.
Even if places seek and welcome designation as a World Heritage Site, gaining it is not the end of the story.
With designation comes responsibility for protecting the site. The World Heritage Site list shows how many of its designated sites are under threat. They include many that one might suspect – those in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, for example, all five natural sites in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the holy sites in Bethlehem and the old city of Jerusalem. The Greek and Roman sites of Libya, like Leptis Magna, are also in much danger.
And there are more surprising places on the list; the historic centre of Vienna is one. So is Liverpool, which has been threatened with removal from the list unless strict measures are put in place to protect the historic core and the waterfront for which it was inscribed on the list.
Two sites have lost their World Heritage Site status – an oryx sanctuary in Oman and the Dresden Elbe Valley, where a new bridge destroyed the integrity of the site.
When it comes to the World Heritage Site on our doorstep, Studley Royal and Fountains Abbey, we know that the National Trust is regularly appraising and updating its protection measures so that the site will always maintain the level of protection demanded by its status.
And, of course, it is not just within its boundaries that a World Heritage Site needs protection – its setting is equally important.
That is why there are ‘Buffer Zones’ around such sites to protect views and restrict development – one is in place for Studley Royal and Fountains Abbey. It is also why there has been much concern about possible new housing estates on the periphery of the Studley Royal and Fountains Abbey estate and buffer zone, at West Lane and at the former Cathedral Choir School site.
If World Heritage Site designation is to be effective, it must take priority over commercial considerations.
It would be shameful indeed if any site near us appeared on the UNESCO ‘Endangered’ list.