John McLellan: Undemocratic Unesco shouldn't boss Edinburgh about

Some weeks ago I wrote about the way threatened removal of Unesco's World Heritage status can influence planning decisions and now an ex-head of English Heritage has joined the criticism.

Thursday, 18th January 2018, 6:00 am
Development plans for the old Royal High School have proved controversial. Picture: Scott Louden

Unesco is advised by the charity Icomos (International Council on Monuments and Sites), whose Scottish representative is Edinburgh-based conservation architect James Simpson.

As any threat to Edinburgh’s Unesco status is regarded as “to be avoided at all costs”, it gives Icomos enormous influence over plans in the World Heritage area. An Icomos delegation called on Edinburgh council at the height of the controversies about the old Royal High and the St James Centre, but no-one would say who they were or who they were seeing.

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Edinburgh's World Heritage Site worth over £1billion

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Following threats to the World Heritage status of the Cornish Mining Landscape site, Westminster and now, because of a regeneration plan, the Liverpool Waterfront, questions are being asked about Unesco’s lack of accountability. In a new article for arts magazine Apollo, the ex-English Heritage chief Simon Thurley suggests Unesco should stick to making lists of cultural activities (apparently it recently declared Neapolitan pizza-making as intangible cultural heritage, which if you’re from Naples it probably is) rather than sticking its nose into complex planning issues.

He has a point. Historic Environment Scotland and other similar agencies advising on developments are answerable to ministers who are answerable to us. Unesco and Icomos are answerable to no-one.