UK World Heritage Sites: Current Issues and Future Implications

By Anna Leask and Elaine Galloway, Napier University & Alan Fyall, Bournemouth University
Nov 2000
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There are now a total of 630 sites across the globe which are designated as World Heritage Sites. These unique properties and locations are deemed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to be of universal value to humankind, and, therefore, need protection and conservation.

Sites with World Heritage Site designation status, which include the Taj Mahal, Grand Canyon and the Tower of London, frequently act as magnets for tourists and are national icons, requiring effective management to ensure their preservation, while allowing access for current generations.

This article investigates the process of obtaining World Heritage Site (WHS) status for sites within the United Kingdom and considers its practical implications for the sites and their management. It also gives a brief explanation of the The World Heritage Convention and its role. The potential effects of WHS status are illustrated by short case studies in the final part of the article.

The key findings presented in this paper originate from two main sources. The first one was a series of in-depth interviews conducted with a sample of individuals involved in WHS designation within the UK, both centrally and within selected sites. The second was a postal survey of 16 sites in the UK with WHS status. The survey, which yielded a 75% response rate, examined current management issues relating to WHS status.

The World Heritage Convention (WHC) was adopted by UNESCO in 1972. A total of 158 countries are now party to the Convention, which enlists the nations of the world to “recognise, inventory, and protect unique and irreplaceable properties of universal value”.

The Convention provides a permanent legal, administrative and financial framework for international co-operation in safeguarding humankind's cultural and natural heritage. Each State Party, the nominating body in the country concerned, pledges to conserve those sites within its borders that are recognised by the WHC.

In return, the international community helps to protect sites with WHS status via payments made to the World Heritage Fund (WHF), and facilitates the exchange of conservation expertise and advice.

The Convention established the World Heritage List (WHL), which contains only those cultural, natural or mixed sites that are deemed to have met the specific criteria defined by the WHC.

State Parties prepare a Tentative List of those sites which they feel meet the criteria for designation, with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) representing the State Party for the UK. They then select sites for nomination to the annual meeting of the World Heritage Bureau (WHB).

This nomination should include a document explaining the international significance of the heritage resource, the criteria under which it could be designated and a management plan for the whole site area. The WHB then takes advice from experts at the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN), before deciding whether or not to ‘inscribe’ (include) a site onto the WHL.

A summary of the process of designation is shown in Figure 1.

World Heritage Site Designation Process

  1. Countries - become State Parties by signing the World Heritage Convention and pledgiing to protect their cultural and natural heritage
  2. The State Party - prepares a Tentative List by selecting sites considered to be of outstanding value
  3. The Site - prepares and submits a nomination document and management plan to UNESCO
  4. UNESCO World Heritage Centre - checks nomination file and sends it to either ICOMOS or IUCN experts
  5. COMOS/IUCN - experts report on the suitability of the nomination
  6. World Heritage Bureau - examines report and recommends inscription, deferral or withdrawal of the nomination
  7. World Heritage Committee - either refuses the nomination or inscribes the site onto the World Heritage List (average time for stages 2-7 is 18 months)

So, what are the likely implications for a site which becomes included on the World Heritage List? There is little research, especially of an empirical nature, into the direct impact of designation status for sites. Described below are just some examples of the implications recognised by a number of designated sites around the world, though the impacts are likely to vary considerably depending on the resources, location and management of the site itself.

  • Enhancement of the site's attractiveness to visitors – overall stamp of quality and perceived importance;
  • Increased visitor numbers – visitor and traffic management issues, economic benefits;
  • Increased visitor expectations – interpretation, language provision, visitor facilities;
  • Increased planning protection – "key material planning consideration" in England;
  • Access to the World Heritage Fund – limited from a UK perspective;
  • Revitalisation of existing structures – working together towards a common goal;
  • Improved international marketing opportunities – use of UNESCO logo;
  • Preparation of a management plan – bringing together organisations from the private and public sectors, with their expertise and experience;
  • Increased civic pride;
  • Improved communication within and between conservation organisations, eg Local Authority World Heritage Forum;
  • Higher profile in local and national context – support in funding applications, assessment of conflicting land use activities.

The above factors may manifest themselves as advantages or disadvantages. It is crucial, however, that the change is managed positively to minimise potential damage to a site and that the very reason for receiving of designation status is maintained.

The UK State Party currently has 18 designated sites, two of which are overseas territories. Sites in the UK include the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, Hadrian's Wall and St Kilda. Figure 2 shows the location of all 16 of the British Isles sites. The majority of these sites were inscribed in 1986 and 1987. Thereafter followed a break until 1995.

Throughout this period, the UK temporarily withdrew from UNESCO. However, the present government is keen to increase the number of sites, with a further six sites currently in the nomination process. These include New Lanark in Scotland and Blaenavon Industrial Landscape in Wales.

Figure 2

Current and future nominations will be selected from the UK Tentative List, which comprises 25 locations across the British Isles and overseas territories.

This list was compiled by DCMS from various sources across the UK, including English Heritage, Historic Scotland and Cadw, with a period of public consultation forming part of the final selection process. Examples include the Lake District, Shakespeare's Stratford and the Cairngorm Mountains. The intention is that these sites will be nominated for inscription at some point during the next ten years.

For this to happen, the site must prepare a suitably robust nomination document and management plan. Support for these often detailed and extensive documents is available from the DCMS in both financial and advisory form. The recent appointment of a World Heritage and International Policy Co-ordinator at English Heritage is a significant progress towards future involvement of the UK State Party in the World Heritage Convention and for future UK nominations.

  • A total of 88% of the sites identified visitor management pressures as being of considerable importance, with the seasonal visitor pattern as the most problematic. Only one in five stated that they had too many visitors, and commented on the resource damage caused in these situations. Some felt they had too few visitors. Some sites thought that the problem lay in the monitoring of visitor numbers and behaviour, often limited by available staff resources. Many stated that the main problem was the diverse number of stakeholders involved in the management of the site, particularly in the urban centres. Part of the issue here was lengthy decision-making processes and constant personnel changes undermining the effectiveness of the management body.
  • 50% of respondents stated that conservation of the site was a problem, 31% a lack of funding and 20% ownership difficulties. The nature of some of the issues raised, eg oil exploration conflicts or shooting rights, was indicative of the type of properties involved. With regard to the preparation of management plans, the main limitations listed were: (a) the large number of interested parties each with their own agendas, (b) poor access to reliable information, (c) the difficulty in achieving a consensus between the parties, (d) lack of staff resources to deal with the required amount of consultation, and (e) the overall lack of resources.
  • Only 58% of the sites stated that they had an appointed WHS co-ordinator in place; this role was often shared between a number of organisations or, in one instance, contracted out to a consultancy firm.
  • When asked if they felt that WHS status required increased legislative power, the respondents suggested that designation should be recognised within existing planning structures. There was a comment that management plans should work by 'consensus' rather than by legislation.

The following examples demonstrate how the main management concerns described above can be tackled and successfully resolved.

Although included in the original tentative list in the 1980s, Maritime Greenwich was not nominated for WHS status until 1996 and was then inscribed in 1997. The Maritime Greenwich WHS is a complex and dynamic urban setting, which includes the Royal Naval College, the Cutty Sark, Royal Observatory and Royal Park, as well as many intangible historical links. English Heritage led the preparation of the nomination document with consultation from central bodies. The management plan was not submitted as part of the nomination since this condition has been introduced relatively recently. However, it was swiftly prepared following inscription and is now published.

The appointment of a site-based co-ordinator was felt to be significant in the process, reinforcing the perception of the site as a single entity. Additionally, a steering group was set up to represent the interests of the stakeholders. This group worked to foster a strong working relationship with a single vision for the future of this complex site. Funding support was received from six of the group members.

One of the challenges still facing this site is how to promote the benefits of the site to both a local and international audience. To some extent it is believed that the full potential of the designation status has not yet been tapped. In some ways this was a deliberate approach, concentrating on the maintenance and protection of its built and cultural heritage, rather than communicating the benefits of the status. However, recent work with local schools and community groups has been conducted in an attempt to attract local interest and involvement.

Studley Royal Park and Fountains Abbey is a striking landscape created around the ruins of a Cistercian Abbey and Fountains Hall Castle in Yorkshire. The site was designated in 1986, with the management plan due for completion by summer 2001. Both the National Trust and English Heritage, who together own the site, are funding the preparation of the management plan. While the boundaries of the site are relatively clear, no monitoring of visitors to the free access areas is undertaken. The main issues raised in the preparation of the plan have been conservation and access.

The consultation process has been extensive and carried out via interviews, leading to the formation of a small steering group and a larger consultative group. In addition, the preparation and distribution of a newsletter to present stakeholders at key stages in the plan proposals has taken place, as has the distribution of questionnaires to local stakeholders, the conducting of open afternoons for the public, and the organisation of a forthcoming public exhibition on the contents of the plan, set for spring 2001. The aim is to prepare a working document that meets the conditions of UNESCO's Operational Guidelines, whilst providing a framework for sustainable management of the site.

Edinburgh Old and New Towns were inscribed in 1995 on the basis of the harmonious juxtaposition of two highly contrasting historic areas, namely the old city and new neoclassic city. One of the main difficulties in managing this busy urban site is that the two towns are separated both physically and administratively. This issue has been partly overcome by the merging of the two existing conservation bodies, the Edinburgh Old Town Renewal Trust and the New Town Conservation Committee.

These bodies held quite different remits in the past but are now working together as the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, formed as a direct result of the WHS designation. It is this body which now needs to prepare the management plan for the whole site. Efforts to involve the local community have included the preparation of a World Heritage Manifesto, stating the aims of the designation, public meetings to discuss the issues and raise awareness and the hosting of a conference entitled Urban Pride, held in Edinburgh in September 2000.

This provided an opportunity for local residents, businesses and interested parties to hear presentations from other European WHS, ICOMOS representatives and to ask questions relating to the implications of the status. While it could be argued that this only attracted predictable sectors of the community, successful attempts were made to involve local schools, community groups and students.

For sites which already hold WHS status, the priority is to develop a management plan for the site. This must confer with the guidelines set by UNESCO, in addition to meeting local needs. Advice and assistance are available from English Heritage via the Policy Advisor, ICOMOS UK, the Local Authority World Heritage Forum, the World Heritage Cities Organisation and from those individuals who have already participated in the preparation of a plan elsewhere.

It appears that the appointment of a site-based co-ordinator may be significant for the success of this stage, though it is important that this role is not simply for the duration of the nomination process but continues into the implementation stage. It is vital that this individual, rather than a local authority representative not necessarily directly involved in the process, attends UK World Heritage Site meetings.

Raising awareness and the benefits of WHS status within the local community is also an important issue – to ensure their support and contribution. Crucial to the success of the management plan is that the stakeholders take ownership of it, which may only come via their involvement in the process. A further priority may be to make increased use of the UNESCO logo, where appropriate, to raise the awareness of the designation and to provide the opportunity for further discussion.

Those sites currently on the UK Tentative List awaiting nomination must concentrate on demonstrating their ability to achieve a successful nomination. A pro-active approach, which proves that a management body could be set up, would assist the likely choice of a site for nomination.

The establishment of a steering group or consultative committee, together with evidence of funding support, would also assist the likely success of a nomination. This might include seeking advice from existing sites and learning from the experiences of sites currently going through the process. It is then a case of lobbying DCMS for support and priority for nomination.

The UK State Party will only nominate sites which it feels stand a strong chance of successful inscription and they have a clear strategy for future nominations, following perceived gaps in the current stock of WHS globally. Aspiring sites need to prove their unique value, their ability to manage the resources and their suitability for nomination. Communication will be the key factor in this, between the State Party and UNESCO, and between sites on the Tentative List and the Policy Advisor at English Heritage.

Finally, for those sites that do not yet feature on the Tentative List, but which want to be considered, the situation is one of gathering information about the process, learning from the actions of UNESCO in site designation, and lobbying the main agencies for consideration in coming years.

The designation of World Heritage Site status on a site brings international recognition of its unique and global universal value. Sites strive for inscription in order to enjoy the benefits that this brings and work to counter any negative aspects through sensitive management planning. The process of nomination requires extensive consultation, dissemination of information and support from a range of agencies.

Effective management of a site is crucial if it is to be considered in the nomination process. The forecast for the future of UK sites is positive, with good support mechanisms and examples of best practice existing, though it is important to get appropriate management plans in place at all designated sites. Further research is being conducted around the globe. It is now vital for the UK to become an active player in this research and contribute to the future development of UNESCO policy on World Heritage Sites.

Anna Leask is a lecturer in Tourism Management at Napier University Business School. Her research interests cover heritage tourism management and tourism planning. She can be contacted on 0131 455 6247 or by email Elaine Galloway was a graduate student at Napier University and contributed to the project's research.

Alan Fyall is a senior lecturer in Tourism Marketing at the International Centre for Tourism & Hospitality Research, Bournemouth University. His current research interests include visitor attractions and inter-organisational collaboration. He can be contacted on 01202 595496 or by email