HERITAGE AS A STATUS SYMBOL
To most architects, Unesco's World Heritage Committee is the bogeyman. No one really knows what it is, or even what it does, but it scares the life out of them.
For the past fortnight Unesco inspectors have been on a whirlwind UK tour, leaving architects and developers as gibbering wrecks, fearing their projects may be thrown on the scrap heap for threatening a city's World Heritage Status.
The inspectors have been in London all this week to try to decide whether the 900year-old Tower of London should keep its World Heritage status, with an announcement expected today (2 November).
But the first port of call was the much-documented Mann Island site in Liverpool, where Unesco's inspectors investigated the potential impact of Broadway Malyan and 3XN's schemes on the city's 'Three Graces' and waterfront.
Although Liverpool's World Heritage status was deemed safe, the inspectors still felt it necessary to issue a warning about contemporary designs near historic building.
For certain major players in the city, the damage was done by Unesco's World Heritage status long before the inspectors moved in. Liverpool business representative Frank McKenna believes the heritage mantle has 'cost the city millions in private-sector investment', with 'planning applications being refused due to World Heritage status'.
McKenna adds: 'There are still large chunks of Liverpool in need of serious regeneration, and this has been a barrier to it.
'I'm not sure the extra visitors and tourists that World Heritage status attracts are worth turning away millions of pounds of investment. [The status] is stiing future growth and doing nothing to create a vibrant, 21st-century city.'
Matthew Slocombe, undersecretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, disagrees. While admitting that some sites have gained heritage status on questionable grounds, he believes that the benefits of that status far outweigh those of being without it.
'There has been a huge expansion in UK World Heritage Sites in the past few years; Blackpool is now going for it, ' says Slocombe. 'These places have huge importance in the UK, but I'm not sure how important they are abroad.
'But there are obvious pros of having the status; the prestige and the added tourism that it brings benefit an area greatly, especially economically.'
Bath certainly feels that it benefits from its World Heritage status; in fact it revels in it. But while Liverpool is experiencing its biggest period of change since the fall of the British Empire, change on such a scale in Bath is only a dream.
Bath has more independent heritage watchdogs to contend with than any other UK city, so development becomes an almighty struggle. This makes the city's architects and developers a bit more philosophical about the World Heritage status.
'The bizarre thing is no one really knows what Unesco is concerned with, ' says Bathbased architect Aaron Evans.
'But people seem to like having World Heritage Site conferred upon them and are constantly afraid of having it taken away.
'It allows the city to be recognised internationally but has no statutory effects, ' he adds. 'We often discuss this at planning meetings, because it means nothing, yet seems to add to people's levels of paranoia in the city. People are using World Heritage status as a stick to wield over any development. It's a kind of additional threat.
'Chris Wilkinson is trying to build a school for James Dyson in South Quays and people are sensitive over an industrial building that isn't even listed, for fear of losing the heritage status.'
Evans claims this caution towards development in Bath is now set in stone, and adds that people need to realise that an active pastiche of Georgian architecture will bring the real Georgian architecture into disrepute.
'The irony is, when John Wood came into contact with medieval Bath, he swept a lot of it away, and replaced it with Georgian Bath, ' says Evans. 'If he had faced the constraints in place now, there would be no Georgian Bath. There is no doubt Bath is a great example of masterplanning, ' adds Evans.
'However, it has to change - if we can't embrace the 21st century, how are we going to change at all?'
There are already plenty of checks and measures protecting the UK's ancient buildings. It is unlikely that the Tower of London would ever lose its World Heritage status, but would it really matter if it did?
According to Neville Shulman, vice-chairman of the UK Unesco culture committee, it would mean a great deal more than a loss of title.
Shulman says: 'The past is very much part of the present as well as the future and definitely needs protecting, so we leave a worthwhile legacy that is of no less value than the legacy we have received.
'Some architects, planners and developers understand the importance of protecting what we have, and have inherited, but there are others who don't, or prefer to think only in the short term.'
He adds: 'The latter is the path leading to disunity and chaos. Most of these issues are inter-related and always need discussion and consideration, allowing us to move forward with finesse and care.'