Caltongate, Edinburgh; one of the proposed buildings (Malcolm Fraser Architects)
From today's Guardian. I apologise for any breach of copyright Mr Rusbridger, but I do buy a paper copy daily, and I was a very early Re-Tweeter of the Trafigura story, so maybe you owe me, just this once?
In April I wrote about Bath's status as a world heritage site, which was then in doubt. Unesco, the international guardian of these sites, had sent a team of inspectors to England's most celebrated Georgian city in November last year, prompted by controversial developments such as its neo-Georgian SouthGate shopping mall, and a scheme for 2,200 flats (and not much else) on the edge of town. Was Bath about to be dropped from Unesco's list of 890 sites considered to be of outstanding international importance, among them Stonehenge, Venice and the Great Barrier Reef?
Until this year, Unesco had dropped just one of its sites, the Oryx sanctuary in Oman, which had failed to look after the rare antelopes and the stunning wilderness in its care. But in June, Dresden was taken off the list after the Saxon capital went ahead with a brutal motorway bridge across the River Elbe and its beautiful baroque city centre. I thought Bath might follow suit. While many people are keen on shops, and many residents feel that the shopping mall (which opened last week) is better than the 1960s one it replaced, it seemed the city had been careless of its heritage, unable to find ways of building intelligently. Still, according to the Bath Chronicle, 30,000 people, more than a third of the city's population, turned up to last week's opening.
When Unesco's inspectors visited last year, they had been asked by concerned locals to look in particular at the proposed residential development, Western Riverside, which looked like a very big, modern tail about to wag a small Georgian dog. Published this summer, Unesco's report avoided discussion of SouthGate, as if it were best to let one gormless project go while pointing out what might be done to safeguard the city's heritage for the future. Construction has not yet begun on Western Riverside, but it has planning permission.
The report emphasised the need for "social facilities" – schools, clinics, pubs, cinemas, bus stations – to go with the flats, and recommended an architectural competition for the second and third phases of the enormous development. It underlined the importance of Bath's setting, the landscape that surrounds it – under threat by proposed suburban extensions of the city. But the report was at best a tepid broadside, one that stopped well short of stripping the city of its heritage status.
Should anyone in Bath care what Unesco says? I think so: its world heritage committee was set up in 1972 by members of the UN, as a means of ensuring that the world's most significant sites were properly cared for by member governments (now numbering 186). Each year, its elected 21-member committee reviews its list of sites, advised by a staff based in Paris (led since 2000 by Venetian architect and planner Francesco Bandarin).
Caroline Kay, chief executive of the Bath Preservation trust, tells me the Unesco report was "much less punchy than we'd hoped. The unresolved problem here is that developments are meant to be addressed by national government, but the Department for Culture Media and Sport, and the Department for Homes and Communities, insist these are issues of purely local interest." Kay hopes to encourage Unesco to take another look at Bath, and is disappointed the report didn't address the shopping centre. "It's in the world heritage site, and the architecture and planning are hardly world class. From the centre of SouthGate, you can't see out to views beyond – a feature of Bath over the centuries. It misses the spirit of Bath. We could have done so much better, and Unesco should have rapped us over the knuckles."
Dresden proves that Unesco has teeth; the city's loss of status may well affect tourist revenue and inward investment. And this year, a Unesco report on Edinburgh (its Old and New Towns have heritage status), has prompted the collapse of two new developments: a 17-storey hotel, and Caltongate, a complex incorporating a hotel, conference centre, 200 flats and offices, which would have entailed the demolition of listed buildings. True, the recession has played a part, too: the developer for Caltongate, Mountgrange Capital, has gone into receivership. But if the development has been knocked on the head, Unesco has played its part.
Now its toughest fight, and one that it is unlikely to win, is over the future of St Petersburg, a city arguably even more beautiful than Bath. Here, the Edinburgh-based architects RMJM have won permission to build the vertiginous Gazprom Tower, or Okhta Centre, as it has since been renamed. Rising from the site of a historic Swedish fort, it will set a precedent for local Flash Gordon-style redevelopment. But planning permission has been granted by Valentina Matviyenko, governor of St Petersburg and a Putin appointee. The tower, and other similar developments, look unstoppable.
So Unesco has its work cut out, but the point of Unesco, as indeed with other conservation bodies in Britain, is not to stop all development, nor to attempt to pickle our cities in heritage aspic, but to make us stop, think and try to build the best we can. In the end, short-term expediency and big-buck developments make few of us happy. As for Bath, Unesco will be watching to see if the city can strike the right balance between its heritage, its need for housing and the modern lust for shopping.
For past posts on all of these, UNESCO and Bath, Caltongate, Haymarket, Gazprom, Dresden, and indeed Jonathan Glancey, please use the search facility, right hand column.
Parts of the above I think are not totally as informed as they could be, and I note Mr G failed to mention the Bath Dyson debacle, which maybe one day I will put together the whole, unvarnished reality rather than the Sir James version, but in the main, fair comment. And thank goodness someone understands what UNESCO actually is.