From Stonehenge to the Lakes: Unesco concerns for UK landmarks

While no world heritage sites are on the ‘in danger’ list, there are concerns about some developments

While the UK does not have any cultural treasures on the Unesco world heritage “in danger” list, concerns have been raised about developments at Stonehenge and other cultural landmarks.


A pink moon over Stonehenge in April.
A pink moon over Stonehenge in April. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Unesco has confirmed Stonehenge would be added to its heritage in danger list, and could be stripped of its world heritage site status if a £2.4bn highway tunnel is permitted to be built as planned. It said that despite efforts to soften the impact, the proposed two-mile tunnel would irreversibly damage an area of outstanding universal value.

Archaeologists, local campaigners and even the nation’s druids launched a court battle to block the development, arguing that the transport secretary’s approval of the proposal did not factor in the potential damage to the prehistoric sites surrounding Stonehenge. Supporters donated thousands of pounds to boost the legal fight. The scheme, which was rubber-stamped by the government in November, threatens to destroy up to half a million artefacts, according to Prof Mike Pearson, archaeologist and member of the independent A303 Scientific Committee.


View W hotel in Edinburgh.
View of the W hotel in Edinburgh. Photograph: Iain Masterton/Alamy

Branded “the Golden Turd” by critics, a new five-star hotel in one of Edinburgh’s most sought-after retail hubs, the St James Quarter, has sparked outrage among architectural heritage campaigners. Due to open next year, the retail-hotel-housing behemoth, situated in Edinburgh’s world heritage site, will boast 214 guest rooms, which includes 20 suites and an “Extreme Wow suite”, the W hotel’s name for its presidential suite.

Jutting out into the skyline, its spiralling bronze-coloured dome has received comparisons to the poo emoji, worthy of its own mock Twitter account (and the worst building of the year award 2020). It received planning permission in controversial circumstances in August 2015, in a split-decision by councillors against the recommendation of the city’s planners.

Cornwall and Devon

Site of a geothermal plants at United Downs in Cornwall.
Site of a geothermal plants at United Downs in Cornwall. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

Plans to build a £10m rum distillery biome heated by geothermal energy have stoked fears that Cornwall and west Devon may lose its heritage status. The distillery would harness excess energy from the UK’s first geothermal plant built nearby to “tropically” mature rum in four pods that mimic Caribbean temperatures. Much of the landscape in Cornwall and Devon was transformed during the Industrial Revolution to make way for underground mines, engine houses, ports and harbours, which together have given the area special mining significance.

Historic England, the government’s adviser on environmental heritage, said it had “strong concerns” about the proposal to create the sustainably run facility inside a biome, with a visitor centre and bar, at United Downs in Cornwall’s treasured mining plot. The plans were challenged by the leaseholder of the land, Purple Cornwall Ltd, which organises stock car racing at the United Downs Raceway. “We don’t oppose these sorts of projects in Cornwall, but we want to protect our raceway. It’s one of the few things young people can do,” Crispen Rosevear, who manages track events, told the i. Residents also took part in a 10-hour run to raise funds in support of the cause.


The Palace of Westminster in London.
The Palace of Westminster in London. Photograph: Tim Ireland/PA

In 2013, the capital’s international heritage status was cast into doubt after planning permission was granted for a £800m skyscraper, Elizabeth House, to be built next to Waterloo station. Westminster city council, along with English Heritage, said the 29-storey office block would blight the Westminster world heritage site by obscuring views of much-loved landmarks such as the Palace of Westminster. “The proposed building is ill-conceived, overly large, and of modest architectural quality. I am far from alone in holding this opinion,” wrote Robert Davis, Westminster city council’s deputy leader, in a letter to Lambeth council, which had given the development the green light alongside the Greater London Authority and the government’s communities department.

The project went ahead, and Unesco decided not to put Westminster on its endangered list as it had previously intended. The cultural watchdog pinpointed weaknesses in UK planning laws and called for legal protection for heritage sites to be strengthened.

Lake District

A four wheel drive vehicle in the Lake District.
A four-wheel drive vehicle in the Lake District. Photograph: DaveBolton/Getty Images/iStockphoto

World Heritage Watch (WHW), a global non-profit organisation which advises Unesco, sounded the alarm in 2018 that the Lake District’s world heritage status is being threatened by 4x4 vehicles. It published a report criticising the environmental damage, particularly at Tilberthwaite, caused by the use of off-roaders. Campaigners have faced a long-running battle with the Lake District national park authority (LDNPA), which last year went to the high court after it granted 4x4s and motorbikes access to two old farm and quarry tracks, known as green lanes, in the Langdale and Coniston valleys. They argued that cars and motorbikes had eroded farm tracks, churning up soil and spoiling the area for visitors.

“In its bid for world heritage status the LDNPA used the very attributes of outstanding universal value that are now being damaged,” said Stephan Dömpke, the chairman of the WHW. The advisory body asked Unesco to make the Lake District’s continued inscription as a world heritage site dependent on the LDNPA acting to prevent further damage caused by the vehicles.


Georgina Quach

The GuardianTramp

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