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World Heritage in the UK

World Heritage in the UK

Choosing the next World Heritage Site (WHS) must be extremely challenging. Every other year, the UK puts forward its own contender, the latest of which was the Lake District in July 2017. To designate somewhere as a WHS is to recognise its outstanding value and collective interest to humanity. These are sites that are identified as being not only significant nationally, but also on a global scale.

There are currently 31 WHS in the UK (including overseas territories). The first sites were inscribed in 1986 and included the Giant’s Causeway, Stonehenge and Ironbridge Gorge. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) encourages countries to sign the World Heritage Convention and is thus responsible for inscribing countries onto the list.

A Controversial Status?

When a site is designated a WHS it becomes legally protected and intended for conservation to help limit potential threats. However, this status can be seen as a controversial one. Most people welcomed the decision to designate the Lake District as a WHS, but others have been critical.


The Lake District’s natural beauty, farming practices and the inspiration it has provided to many artists and writers earned it a place on the World Heritage List. The move will most definitely boost tourism, an industry which already creates 18,000 jobs and attracts 18 million visitors whom bring in a total spend of £1.2 billion each year. UNESCO has also guaranteed to improve the conservation of the Lake District and its age-old farming practices.

However, some are sceptical of this status. Critics are concerned about the erasure of natural heritage through the promotion of sheep farming. Bird populations are already suffering from a rapid loss of natural forests. One writer stresses how the Lake District could become a ‘Beatrix Potter-themed sheep museum’*1. Others are concerned about the problems that a rise in tourism could bring to an already vulnerable landscape. In simple terms, the elevated position the Lake District has gained is not the issue here but the potential impacts that come with it.

Heritage and Lists – does this fit the UK?

To be designated a WHS, the site must already be a classified landmark and have special cultural and physical significance to people. Sites must meet UNESCO’s criteria, which will label it as having ‘Outstanding Universal Value’. The site must meet one or more of the ten criteria. For example, the site could represent a masterpiece of human creative genius or contain the most important and significant natural habitats.

Whilst we can see the benefits of preserving world heritage, the process of a universal list when measuring cultural and natural significance is controversial. It can limit the diversity in which we view heritage and its meaning. For example, our view of heritage here in the UK might be considerably different to people in Kenya or New Zealand. Heritage is an extremely broad spectrum. The designation of WHS’ in the UK could prioritise one view type of heritage over others.

Where would you pick?

Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire has been chosen as the UK’s nomination for World Heritage status in 2019. Home to the Grade I listed Lovell Telescope, it is a site of global importance in the history of radio astronomy. As such, it is the only site in the world that includes evidence of every stage of the post-1945 development of radio astronomy.


The expansion of WHS’ in the UK is becoming more diversified and exploring routes into both natural and scientific heritage. So if you was to choose somewhere in the UK to be nominated for WHS status, where would you pick?

By Jake Epton, Culture Syndicates’ Administration Assistant. Jake graduated from Nottingham Trent University’s Masters in Museum and Heritage Development in 2017 and is developing his experience and skills in collections management, exhibitions and interpretation.

*Featured photograph: Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites by Francesco Bandarin http://ow.ly/LEMo30iVab1

*1 – George Monbiot (2017) https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/11/lake-district-world-heritage-site-sheep

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