Last edited 15 May 2022

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Delisting Liverpool world heritage site

In July 2021 Liverpool became only the third place to lose its world heritage status. Ian Wray reflects on what happened there and why.

Liverpool waterfront.jpg
Liverpool’s waterfront: the Lexington Tower is behind the cruise-liner funnel and to the right. Other tall buildings are in the 1960s city centre plan office expansion zone (Photo: Liverpool City Council).

On 7 July 2004 ‘Liverpool – Maritime Mercantile City’, with much civic celebration, was inscribed in the list of Unesco world heritage sites. Only 17 years on, Unesco has removed the status, claiming that irretrievable damage has been caused to the site’s outstanding universal value by new developments. Liverpool’s recently elected new city mayor Joanne Anderson (Britain’s first black woman city mayor) had campaigned vigorously for retaining the world heritage site, to no avail. It is an incredibly sad loss, not just for Liverpool, but for the UK as whole, for the Liverpool site was part of Britain’s national cultural heritage, not just Liverpool’s. Indeed, it is a serious blow for the wider conservation movement.

What was the basis for designating Liverpool as a world heritage site?

The site was designated on the basis of the initial statement of outstanding universal value, reflecting the city’s pivotal role in world history. Views and townscape were not mentioned, and there was only one reference to architecture: ‘the minor detailing of architecture such as original pulleys [1]…’ Liverpool’s global significance rested on the development of innovative port technologies, the building up of the British empire, the abhorrent slave trade, and Liverpool’s global and cultural trading connections. However, not long after inscription (and without public consultation) the statement of outstanding universal value was amended by Unesco to place emphasis on structures, architecture, buildings – and thus ‘views’ – rather than culture and history [2]. Thus the apparently immutable statement of outstanding universal value was reconfigured by heritage experts.

Who is responsible for protecting the UK’s world heritage?

The UK government is responsible, as the relevant ‘state party’ and signatory to the Unesco World Heritage Convention. The convention is clear about the government’s responsibilities, setting out the duties of state parties in identifying potential sites and their role in protecting and conserving them: ‘By signing the convention, each country pledges to conserve not only the world heritage sites situated on its territory, but also to protect its national heritage. The state parties are encouraged to integrate the protection of the cultural and natural heritage into regional planning programmes, set up staff and services at their sites, undertake scientific and technical conservation research, and adopt measures which give this heritage a function in the day-to-day life of the community’[3].

Why was Unesco so concerned about Liverpool?

It had two concerns, both relating entirely to the derelict and disused North Docks, which are partly in the site and partly in the ‘buffer zone’ around the site. The first concern was the outline planning permission for Liverpool Waters, which included proposals for tall buildings on the waterfront. All of these proposed tall buildings were in the buffer zone, not the world heritage site. The second concern was the proposal for the new Everton stadium on the waterfront at the Bramley Moore Dock.

What is Liverpool Waters?

Liverpool Waters is an outline planning permission for a large-scale speculative development submitted by Peel Holdings, which owns the North Docks. Permission was given by the city council in March 2012 [4]. The secretary of state for communities and local government considered whether to call in the application for his consideration and a possible public inquiry, but decided not to do so, effectively giving the green light to the development. Initially conceived before the 2008 financial crash [5], to date virtually nothing has been built to implement that permission, in terms of buildings constructed on the ground. Proposals now coming forward are generally modest, some of only two or three storeys.

How many tall buildings have been built in Liverpool Waters?

None has been built. The only new tall building constructed on the waterfront since inscription of the world heritage site in 2004 is the Lexington Tower on Princes Dock. It was handled as a standalone planning application, outside the scope of the outline permission for Liverpool Waters, and sits on the site of a pre-existing expired permission for a tower of similar height. There was no objection from Historic England. The building reads as part of the 1960s city centre plan office expansion zone. Sitting on lower ground, its top storey is significantly lower than the nearby, pre-existing, Beetham Tower.

Has there been a history of big structures on Liverpool’s waterfront?

Yes. The Liver Building was built on an infilled former dock. It is an example of early-20th-century ‘skyscraper-styleoffice building construction, and one of the greatest and most famous features of the world heritage site. It was the first building in England to be described as a skyscraper. The office expansion zone is immediately adjacent to the Pier Head, and full of tall buildings from the late 1960s, 1970s and later.

There are many other examples of huge and tall structures on the Mersey waterfront. These include the former Bibby building; the former Clarence Dock Power Station; the colossal former ‘Dockers Cathedral’ grain silo; the Seaforth Dock container cranes and grain silos; the Albert Dock (not tall but massive in scale); the Stanley Dock Tobacco Warehouse; and the former New Brighton Tower (once one of the tallest structures in Britain) – not to mention ocean liners, oil tankers and cruise liners. Nonetheless, the third Unesco mission to Liverpool concluded that ‘Key attributes of the waterfront and the quays are essentially the large-scale horizontal warehouse buildings’ [6].

Will the Everton football stadium damage any built-heritage assets?

No. The stadium is a high-quality development and all the historic fabric, including all the dock walls, the former hydraulic engine house and, where they exist, original surfaces and materials, will be restored and preserved. The development will enable people to get to the waterfront and the river. However, in order to build the stadium it will be necessary to fill in part of the disused water areas in the dock.

The planning permission for the stadium was granted in February 2021 by the city council. As with the Liverpool Waters permission, the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government decided not to call in the application for his consideration, effectively giving the green light to the proposal. In a letter to The Times, the stadium was supported by the mayors, chief executives from both football clubs, the vice chancellors, business leaders and both bishops. In an opinion poll, 98 per cent of those surveyed supported the plan.

Leaving aside the derelict North Docks, what has happened in the bulk of the world heritage site?

There has been huge progress, including the complete reconstruction of the city centre public realm, new modern buildings at Mann Island (to which Unesco did not object), the award winning Liverpool One scheme (saving and opening the remains of the world’s first enclosed wet dock for public access), the restoration of Stanley Dock, the restoration of the huge Tobacco Warehouse (in progress), and many other schemes which have brought back into use prominent listed buildings for hotels and housing. The tower in the Liverpool One scheme was reduced in height to meet concerns from English Heritage. The Strand, formerly a six-lane, motorway-style road, caused acute severance between the Pier Head and the city centre parts of the world heritage site. It is currently being narrowed to a tree-lined boulevard. Across the city only 2.5 per cent of listed buildings are now at risk, down from 13 per cent in 2000. The council estimates that since designation as a world heritage site, £700 million has been invested in heritage projects.

How many other world heritage sites have been taken off the list?

Two. The Arabian Oryx Reserve in Oman, after the Oryx population dwindled and the Oman government unilaterally reduced the protected area by 90 per cent, and Dresden, because Unesco objected to a new bridge. Many other severely damaged sites remain on the list, including Palmyra in Syria, where many monuments were destroyed by ISIS terrorists in 2014 [7].

Have tall buildings been built near other UK world heritage sites?

Yes. The Tower of London World Heritage Site is surrounded by new tall buildings, including some of the tallest new buildings in Europe, such as the Shard, the ‘Walkie Talkie’ and the Gherkin/Swiss Re building.

What are the main lessons from Liverpool’s loss?

First, draw realistic boundaries. A city is not a museum. Think very carefully before including derelict and disused areas, where there is known to be an appetite for major investment and change.

Second, be fair and pragmatic in responding to the evolution of cities, including the issue of boundary review, and practice conservation, not preservation. At present Unesco will not consider boundary reviews, even when it is clear that circumstances have greatly changed. Unesco did not set out the balance sheet as a whole in Liverpool; it focused on unimplemented or quite minor ‘threats’, rather than wide-ranging tangible achievements.

Third, respect and communicate with local communities. There should have been public consultation on the revised statement of Outstanding Universal Value. Unesco’s response to Liverpool’s situation was to send in teams of experts for two or three days on three occasions, to prepare reports. What was needed was long-term relationship building, with a permanent embedded presence to build mutual understanding, rather than delivering critical and sometimes misleading reports.

Fourth, apply fair and consistent policy. Make sure that policy concerns are reflected consistently across world heritage sites and do not allow different standards to emerge. Fifth, scrutinise development proposals properly. Make sure that major development proposals affecting sites designated for their international significance – and the alternative options – are fully considered. Do not side-step government responsibilities by pretending that they are just a local matter.

More effective scrutiny, involving a planning inspector and public inquiry for Liverpool Waters and the Stadium, could have considered alternative options and could have led to a more realistic and sensitive proposal for Liverpool Waters – and one more likely to be implemented. A more robust and open approach might have engendered more support from Unesco and led to compromises that everyone would have been happy with.


This article originally appeared in Context 170, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in December 2021. It was written by Ian Wray, a visiting professor at Liverpool University’s Heseltine Institute and vice chair of World Heritage UK. He was a member of the Liverpool World Heritage Site Steering Group, 2004–2021, and currently chairs the Birkenhead Park World Heritage Site Bid Committee. This article draws on his personal experience and is an entirely personal view.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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