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Gifting the devlopment of cities to heritage groups is dangerous...

Gifting the development of cities to heritage groups is dangerous and restrictive, argues Alan Dunlop

‘Embracing the past; enhancing the future’ is the tag line of Edinburgh World Heritage (EWH). A more honest description would be ‘embracing the past, endangering the future’.
According to the charter of EWH, its purpose is ‘to enhance the outstanding universal values’ of Edinburgh as a World Heritage site. This means that any building proposed within the site – that includes all of the old town and much of the new – faces additional challenge. EWH has no statutory power, but boasts the support of Historic Scotland, which does. Although it is part-funded by City of Edinburgh Council, the city’s planning department is the target of its letter writing. Usually, the letters say that giving the go-ahead to new projects which EWH doesn’t like will cost Edinburgh its World Heritage status.
Like most quasi-governmental organisations who ‘champion’ the public cause,
EWH is unelected and its board made up of accountants, consultants, retired planners and conservationists. There is also talk of Glasgow applying for its World Heritage badge – this would be unfortunate, as the city supports much sound contemporary architecture.
In Bath, a new development proposed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS) has incurred the wrath of Icomos-UK, a local chapter of the International Council on Monuments and Sites; yet another unelected heritage body attached to Unesco. It objects to a scheme to build 2,200 much-needed new houses with shops and restaurants on a brownfield site currently occupied by redundant gasholders (AJ 15.11.07). FCBS has an international reputation for well-crafted contemporary architecture on sensitive sites. Nonetheless, Icomos-UK suggests that if the scheme gains planning permission, it will cost Bath its World Heritage status. Where have we read that before?
Who are these people? Icomos-UK describes itself as a ‘forum for 7,000 conservation professionals, which promotes the conservation of our cultural heritage’. Its UK members include archaeologists and conservation architects. Like EWH, it has no legal powers but is supported by English Heritage.
What is extraordinary is that such self-selected groups are permitted to quality assure our built environment in the face of statutory, democratic and architectural principles.
By focusing only on the need to protect heritage and seeming to disregard all else, these organisations inhibit the proper functioning of the planning process. Their drive to preserve specific buildings or areas in aspic is insular, self-seeking and regressive. Cities are living organisms. They need to change and adapt to different times. It is inherently dangerous to gift their development to small coteries who aim to restrict their growth to the shape of the past.
Alan Dunlop is a director of gm+ad Architects.

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