The increasingly impertinent claims to authority by Unesco, the unelected Paris-based bureaucracy, should be firmly rejected by the UK government as soon as is possible. For as part of its gauleiter operations to dictate to cities and nations what they should do with their built history, Unesco has begun throwing its weight about in relation to the so-called ‘world heritage site’ that is our very own Parliament Square.
You might have thought that this would involve expressing a concern about how the buildings on the site are being looked after, and how new buildings proposed within it are contributing to the ensemble. Not a bit of it. Perhaps realising that the controls exercised by Westminster City Council, English Heritage, a myriad amenity groups and various other statutory and non-statutory consultees might just be doing the trick, Unesco has turned its spotlight on a quite different set of buildings and sites: those that can, shock horror, be itals seen itals from the ‘world heritage site’.
I would like to be able to say that I am making this up, but it is deadly serious. Unesco is ‘warning’ Westminster and the government that proposals for Waterloo, designed by those enemies of history David Chipperfield, Hopkins Architects and Michael Squire, will put the status of the ‘world heritage site’ at risk because the views from the site, or at least some of them, will be fatally ruined by proposals now in the planning system. Of course one major proposal for the site has already been rejected because of view impact, with no help from Paris.
Before moving on to the specifics of the case, let’s just remind ourselves how it is that Unesco comes to be concerning itself with proposed developments in a highly regulated western city which are not themselves in, or even close to, a ‘world heritage site’. The answer is very simple: developing countries with real world historical buildings and monuments, like Egypt and its pyramids, became fed up with the demands Unesco kept making on them to do this or that. How come, they asked, Unesco never made demands of the same sort on developed countries?
Unesco began looking round for cities and sites in developing countries that they could have a go at. One consequence of this was the last government’s crazy decision to call in Rafael Vinoly’s ‘Walkie-talkie’ office development in the City of London. This had been given a full planning permission by the City Corporation, and although English Heritage had raised objections to the design, it had not gone so far as to ask for an inquiry. Enter Unesco, with some menacing noises about the Tower of London losing its ‘world heritage site’ designation, plus an impending international conference on heritage in New Zealand, and our department of culture went weak at the knees and ordered a public inquiry.
The threat to remove ‘world heritage site’ status from the Tower of London had cropped up earlier in respect of Renzo Piano’s ‘Shard’ scheme at London Bridge, which can be seen from the Tower (it is not directly opposite and is on the other side of the Thames). The planning inquiry inspector was having none of it.
Even earlier, at the Heron Tower inquiry, the inspector was clear in his report which recommended allowing the development, that just because you could see a building from a conservation site did not mean that the site itself had become soiled goods.
The attempt by Unesco to reverse this finding is now evident in Liverpool, where development on the Wirral waterfront is said to be jeopardising the city’s waterfront ‘world heritage site’ opposite. Now we have the same proposition in respect of Parliament Square. This needs a robust response. That might be along the lines of: we have built and looked after our heritage for centuries, without the benefit of Unesco telling us what to do or how to do it. We are going to tell our tourist boards to get off their knees, and our ministers will stop quaking when you call.
To use an old-fashioned London phrase: why don’t you stick it up your jumper? And remember Waterloo!