Developers' shadow over Westminster

By Jamie Doward

Unesco to hear request for endangered listing which could mean loss of prized heritage status.

Unesco warns the planned development of a eries of skyscrapers would intrude heavily on views of Big Ben, one of London's much-loved landmarks.  Photo / AP
Unesco warns the planned development of a eries of skyscrapers would intrude heavily on views of Big Ben, one of London's much-loved landmarks. Photo / AP

London's irresistible desire to build upwards threatens to end the internationally recognised heritage status of one the UK's most photographed locations.

Unesco's world heritage committee, the body that recognises sites of global cultural importance, will meet next Sunday in Cambodia, and its advisory bodies will ask it to place the area surrounding the UK's Parliament on its "endangered list".

The move follows concerns that several famous views of the British Parliament, in Westminster, central London, will be threatened by the development of a series of skyscrapers.

Inclusion on the list would be the first step in the removal of coveted international heritage status, something that would deal a significant blow to the UK's cultural pride.

In a move that highlights the dilemma facing the British Government when considering the merits of approving big construction projects versus preserving the UK's heritage, the committee will also express reservations about plans to develop a historically important industrial harbour in Cornwall, southwest England, and the siting of a golf course next to the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland, both areas that suffer from a lack of investment.

Unesco world heritage status is a highly prized listing. Only 962 sites around the world are deemed to have "outstanding universal value" and of these 28 are in the UK.

In London, Unesco has concerns about Elizabeth House, an £800 million ($1.57 billion) development in Waterloo, that features two giant glass towers and is one of four landmark projects in the capital that the cultural watchdog wants halted.

Local London councillors believe the project will bring in jobs and help rejuvenate a tired site. But Unesco has been warned that the various projects which, in addition to Waterloo, are on the nearby South Bank and in Vauxhall and Elephant and Castle (Southwest London) will affect views of parliament buildings Westminster Palace, Westminster Abbey and Saint Margaret's Church, often referred to as the "parish church of the Commons [The House of Commons]".

The provisional agenda for the Cambodia meeting states: "Over the last years, the world heritage committee has repeatedly expressed concern about the actual or potential adverse impact of tall buildings on the setting of the property [the area around the UK's Parliament]. Reactive monitoring missions to the property were carried out in 2006 and 2011 that focused on the need to strengthen the systems for protecting the immediate and wider setting of the property, which does not have a buffer zone."

English Heritage, an advisory body to Unesco, submitted evidence warning that the development would have a negative impact on "views from the Westminster World Heritage Site and the proposal would intrude heavily on views of Big Ben, one of London's much-loved landmarks and a Grade I listed building".

But the Government appears unconcerned. Demands for the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, to call a halt to the scheme were rejected earlier this year.

A perceived failure to safeguard the UK's heritage sites would see questions asked about the protection afforded them by the British Government's new National Planning Policy Framework, which critics fear is skewed too heavily in favour of developers.

- Observer

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