Why Liverpool faces a threat to its World Heritage Site's status

Unesco's request for a moratorium on planning decisions in Liverpool's World Heritage Site and the zone around it is unworkable, commentators say.

Liverpool Waterfront: row over Peel Holdings’ scheme could see the area lose its World Heritage Site status
Liverpool Waterfront: row over Peel Holdings’ scheme could see the area lose its World Heritage Site status

The submission of two major planning applications for Liverpool's waterfront has prompted a stand-off between the city and Unesco, the international body that oversees the waterfront's World Heritage Site designation. The city's mayor Joe Anderson has rejected a call from a Unesco summit earlier this month for a moratorium on all major planning decisions on the waterfront heritage site and the buffer zone around it, which together cover the majority of the city centre.

A motion agreed by the summit said that no major planning decisions should be taken until a conservation report defining how the site will be protected - due at the end of the year - has been agreed and implemented. The call comes in response to the applications for a 20-storey student housing complex near Lime Street station and the 34-storey Moda tower on the Princes Dock, which forms the first part of the controversial Liverpool Waters masterplan. Mayor Anderson said he is writing to Unesco to make it clear that the city cannot comply with its request as it would "stifle" investment.

Liverpool's waterfront was put on Unesco's list of "endangered" heritage sites at risk of losing the status in 2012 because of the outline approval of Peel Holdings' £5.5 billion Liverpool Waters plan. While 55 world heritage sites are currently on this list, Unesco has only ever withdrawn world heritage status from two. Roger Mascall, head of heritage at planning consultancy Turley, said: "Unesco often rides in to town and makes threats, but it doesn't often follow through."

However, the Unesco summit did agree a motion to de-list Liverpool if the requested conservation report was not supplied in time - a decision that a Unesco insider described as "unusual". Henrietta Billings, director of conservation charity SAVE, which has asked culture secretary Karen Bradley to chair an urgent summit on the issue, said: "I don't think any secretary of state wants a World Heritage Site to lose that status on their watch."

Whether or not this threat is real, experts say that Liverpool has little choice in how to respond. Steven Bee, director of heritage planning consultancy Urban Counsel, said: "A moratorium on development in a large city is completely impractical. The way Unesco applies its criteria is of heavy-handed; it must understand that Liverpool's site covers an area that is inevitably going to change."

If Liverpool does comply with Unesco's request, it could well find itself subject to legal challenge from developers. "What Unesco is asking for is not legally enforceable," said Iain Rhind, head of heritage at consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners. "If a developer submits a planning application, it has to be determined. Now Peel Holdings has its outline permission, there is a limit to what Liverpool can do to row back. So I don't see any immediate solutions here."

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