It’s clear that the awarding body, UNESCO, is becoming more active in protecting key sites. Not only have we seen Liverpool waterfront stripped of its status, but now Stonehenge. Of all places, is threatened. If it can happen to Stonehenge, we can’t take Canterbury’s status for granted. We need to be active in protecting it, because of how crucial it is to our tourism (both domestic and international) and hence to our ability to recover from the economic crisis caused by Covid and Brexit.
The problem we face is common: the need for development conflicts with the need to protect the heritage site. And the fact that we have three distinct components within the UNESCO designated “property” makes this much more difficult. The protected site is not just the Cathedral, as some people might imagine, but also the historically linked ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey and the still very much active St Martin’s Church. The integrity of the three together is critical to maintaining the UNESCO status.
That’s why there has been such an outcry about the intrusive and unsightly air conditioning units which have been plonked unceremoniously on the top of Canterbury Christ Church university’s new medical block.
But this isn’t the only threat. There’s increasing pressure from property developers working within the City walls to build higher, to give them views of the Cathedral. But of course, views work both ways.
There are other problems. Like all the UK’s heritage, Canterbury’s is seriously underfunded. St Augustine’s is exposed to the weather, as well as being immediately adjacent to both the King’s School and CCCU site, with the latter obviously developing its buildings. Like our City walls, heritage requires constant maintenance which is hugely expensive.
There are two bodies charged with looking after the UNESCO site here. One of them, the canterbury Heritage Design Forum, has within the last year been stripped of its right to directly refer planning applications which it is concerned about to the City Council’s Planning committee. That’s an important erosion of its ability to defend the World Heritage site and surroundings.
The World Heritage Site Management Plan Committee includes CHDF, but it’s not entirely clear who else is on it or whether it is at all active. The latest management plan for the site which I could find dates from 2002. The world has changed a bit since then. Who is actively defending our World Heritage status?
Imagine the negative effect on all this of the Government’s proposed relaxation (they would say, simplification) of Planning laws. Without the Council having the legal right to define and protect the site, can we really be confident that our heritage, let alone its global recognition, is something we can be sure of?