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How Canterbury could follow Stonehenge and Liverpool's mistakes and lose Unesco World Heritage status


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It is one of the most historic places in the UK, yet there are fears Canterbury could follow in the footsteps of Liverpool and lose its World Heritage status.

And with news that Stonehenge is now in danger of losing its Unesco title, the warning signs are clear says a senior councillor: the city needs to be careful.

Canterbury boasts incredible heritage, but it must be careful in order to keep hold of its Unesco status. Picture: Simon Pettman
Canterbury boasts incredible heritage, but it must be careful in order to keep hold of its Unesco status. Picture: Simon Pettman

The district's Labour group leader, Cllr Dave Wilson, says Canterbury has to take the recent news seriously.

"It’s clear Unesco is becoming more active in protecting key sites," he said.

"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 and hence to our ability to recover from the economic crisis caused by Covid and Brexit."

The ruins of St Augustine's Abbey are part of the World Heritage site. Picture: Lara Russell
The ruins of St Augustine's Abbey are part of the World Heritage site. Picture: Lara Russell
St Martin's Church is the oldest church in England
St Martin's Church is the oldest church in England
Canterbury Cathedral undergoing major refurbishments. Picture: Paul Amos
Canterbury Cathedral undergoing major refurbishments. Picture: Paul Amos

The UN’s heritage body says the famous stone circle in Wiltshire is being placed on the "in danger" list due to plans for a road tunnel near to the prehistoric site being approved.

Liverpool, meanwhile, was stripped of its World Heritage status last week as scrutinising officials found recent developments threatened the value of the city's waterfront.

Unesco's ruthless actions have left other landmarks and cities wary of what could happen next.

Cornwall’s historic mining area and the Tower of London among those thought to be under threat.

As it stands, Canterbury remains one of the 31 recognised UK locations, with its three-pronged group of the Cathedral, St Augustine's Abbey and St Martin's Church forming one encompassing World Heritage site.

Hopefully Canterbury won't follow in the footsteps of Liverpool and lose its Unesco status... not that it was John, Paul, George or Ringo's fault
Hopefully Canterbury won't follow in the footsteps of Liverpool and lose its Unesco status... not that it was John, Paul, George or Ringo's fault
If even Stonehenge is at risk, where else could be in danger of losing its World Heritage title?
If even Stonehenge is at risk, where else could be in danger of losing its World Heritage title?

World Heritage status brings with it planning protection, with each new application within the designated areas having to tick safeguarding boxes.

But with Canterbury evolving and growing in size, Cllr Wilson says there is a difficult balance to strike.

The recent installation of ugly air conditioning units on the new medical block at Canterbury Christ Church University angered conservationists who say the work has ruined an iconic view of the Cathedral.

"The problem we face is common: the need for development conflicts with the need to protect the heritage site," Cllr Wilson said.

"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.

The air conditioning units atop a building at CCU, with Canterbury Cathedral in the background
The air conditioning units atop a building at CCU, with Canterbury Cathedral in the background

"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 CCU'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 may be factors threatening to harm Canterbury's Unesco status, yet city council leader Ben Fitter-Harding says the city's heritage is in a safe pair of hands under his direction.

Earlier this year, he unveiled plans to significantly overhaul some of Canterbury's heritage assets by detailing a bid to secure £20 million of government funding as part of a “game-changing” process.

"The World Heritage sites' significance and importance is such that it’s difficult to see how this recognition could ever be called into question," he said.

Council leader Ben Fitter-Harding
Council leader Ben Fitter-Harding

"However, that does not mean that we should be complacent. Quite the contrary; it is our responsibility to ensure they are complemented by the rest of the city’s incredible heritage and cultural offerings.

"That’s exactly why we’re developing a Levelling Up Fund bid for £20 million to support Canterbury, so that we can continue to elevate what we offer to the world and ensure that these globally recognised sites are just one of the reasons why so many people visit our part of the world.

"Canterbury’s Tales of England is the first initiative in generations to propose significant investment in the very fabric of our medieval city, and I’m very proud to be leading the charge."

Turning the city wall into a green haven of wildflowers akin to Manhattan’s High Line park, transforming Canterbury’s crumbling castle into an amphitheatre, and renovating the Dane John Gardens are among the aspirations of the city council.

Other aspects of the scheme include creating a new ‘shared space’ square at Westgate Towers, turning the Guildhall council chamber into a visitor attraction and planting new trees on the dry moat below the city wall, next to the ring-road.

Work renovating the Cathedral has been ongoing for years
Work renovating the Cathedral has been ongoing for years
Canterbury Cathedral is one of the best-known landmarks in the UK
Canterbury Cathedral is one of the best-known landmarks in the UK

The council is now working on finalising its application for the £20 million funding before submitting an official bid later this year.

Cllr Fitter-Harding added: "Together with the initiatives in our Local Plan preferred option, making significant interventions in Canterbury to fix air quality and congestion issues for good, I’m confident that we’re doing everything that we can to ‘preserve the best and improve the rest'."

As well as having local councils as a guardian, the protection of a World Heritage site is the responsibility of national governments, which have a duty to identify, protect and conserve their assets for future generations.

St Augustine's Abbey is well-known, yet still goes under the radar
St Augustine's Abbey is well-known, yet still goes under the radar

Canterbury gained its status in 1988.

Historic England's website says it is UK Government policy that each site must have a management plan to ensure they are managed in a sustainable way.

"All UK sites have management plans in place, which are regularly reviewed," it reads.

Cllr Wilson said: "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?"

Cllr Dave Wilson, leader of the Canterbury Labour group
Cllr Dave Wilson, leader of the Canterbury Labour group

"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."

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