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Liverpool Stripped Of World Heritage Site Status As Heritage v. Development Debate Ends In Standoff

Liverpool's waterfront, no longer ranked by Unesco

Liverpool’s historic waterfront, along with five other city centre sites totalling 326 acres, have been stripped of World Heritage status by Unesco.

The decision is not a surprise.

The approval earlier this year of plans for Everton FC’s new 52,000-seat stadium at Bramley Moore Dock pushed Unesco into decisive action.

In a statement issued after the Unesco meeting in China, the organisation said the decision was “due to the irreversible loss of attributes conveying the outstanding universal value of the property.”

Since 2004, when Liverpool joined a select list of the world's most treasured sites, including the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China, World Heritage status has been a badge the city council was proud to wear. 

The city council’s job was to protect that memorial. But like the proverbial insurer, who will happily provide you with umbrellas except when it is raining, Liverpool’s commitment to protecting its heritage ended at the point that it got in the way of building something new. Unesco expected a more absolute and less pragmatic approach. In the end, the UN heritage body simply ran out of patience.

The original cause of the contention was Peel Land & Property’s 30-year vision for the 20M SF Liverpool Waters development, stretched out along the northern section of the city’s historic docks. Bramley Moore Dock is part of this area. 

Dispute focused at first on Peel’s plans for a series of Shanghai-style skyscrapers. Economic reality undermined those proposals, and the tide of anxiety drifted out. Decisions were deferred for more information, but the process shook Unesco’s confidence because it looked like a lack of viability, not cast-iron heritage guarantees, halted the skyscraper plan. 

Unesco asked for an explanation of how the city council and UK government planned to protect the site in the future: The answer, in the form of Liverpool’s 2020 North Shore Vision, left it nonplussed.

A report to the Unesco meeting in China said that the focus of the 2020 North Shore Vision “is not on protecting [the waterfront] but rather on outlining [the] integrated development approach for an area of the city that is in need of social and economic realignment … This indicates that there are no legal and instrumental means available in the governance of the property that would allow the state party to protect the [outstanding value] of the property.” 

Unesco went on to criticise “Lack of overall management of new developments ... Lack of analysis and description of the townscape characteristics relevant to the outstanding universal value of the property and important views related to the property and its buffer zone … Lack of established maximum heights for new developments along the waterfront and for the backdrops of the World Heritage property.”

The Everton stadium plan involved “serious deterioration and loss of attributes that convey the [outstanding universal value] of the property to the extent that it has lost characteristics which determined its inclusion in the World Heritage list.” 

Many in Liverpool wanted to keep the World Heritage designation, but none were prepared to give up the Everton stadium plan or Peel's vision, as the reaction to the Unesco decision showed. The result was the mutual failure of comprehension that resulted in the Unesco decision and built on the longer-standing possibility that Liverpool misunderstood the designation from the first.

Unesco made it clear Liverpool was recognised less because Liverpool was beautiful, and more because it was notorious as an outstanding example of development based on the slave trade.

“Liverpool played an important role in the growth of the British Empire and became the major port for the mass movement of people, e.g. slaves and emigrants from northern Europe to America,” the Unesco citation said.