Liverpool Loses Its UNESCO World Heritage Status

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LONDON — Liverpool suffered the rare indignity on Wednesday of being removed from the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites after being granted the title 17 years ago, because of concerns about developments in the city, most significantly on its famous waterfront.

The decision was made in Fuzhou, China, after a secret ballot by the UNESCO committee, which voted in favor of a recommendation made in June to strip Liverpool of its heritage status, a move that will be a blow to the prestige of a city that has fought to revitalize itself in recent years.

Richard Kemp, the leader of the largest opposition-party group on Liverpool City Council, described the loss of status on Twitter as a “day of shame for Liverpool.”

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A report published in June by the committee expressed “deep regret” and said that developments in the city and on its waterfront had “resulted in serious deterioration and irreversible loss of attributes,” as well as a “significant loss to its authenticity and integrity.”

Liverpool gained its World Heritage status in 2004, in recognition of its mercantile and maritime history, reflected in grand architecture. As one of the world’s major trading centers in the 18th and 19th centuries, Liverpool built much of its prosperity from the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The heritage list is designed to recognize and preserve monuments, buildings and other sites, with member states obligated, to the greatest extent possible, to preserve them.

Only two other sites have lost their heritage status: The Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman, in 2007, after the number of oryx dropped precipitously and the government cut the size of the sanctuary by 90 percent; and the Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany, two years later, because of the construction of a bridge that cut through it.

In Liverpool’s case, concern was focused in part on a $7 billion dollar regeneration plan for its historic waterfront. The project includes luxury apartments and towering buildings, raising fears that they would endanger its skyline and architecture, leading to the city being placed on the list for World Heritage in Danger in 2012.

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In a statement, the mayor of Liverpool, Joanne Anderson, said that she was “hugely disappointed and concerned” by Wednesday’s decision.

“Our World Heritage site has never been in better condition having benefited from hundreds of millions of pounds of investment across dozens of listed buildings and the public realm,” she said. “We will be working with government to examine whether we can appeal but, whatever happens, Liverpool will always be a World Heritage city.”

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Kim Johnson, the national lawmaker whose district includes the waterfront, said on Twitter that the decision was deeply disappointing, but Liverpool would “continue to grow and develop as a city that delivers regeneration for all.”

She added, “Just hope we still respect our waterfront enough to support good design that complements our world famous skyline.”

A spokesperson for the British government also expressed disappointment, adding that the government still believed that Liverpool deserved World Heritage status “given the significant role the historic docks and the wider city have played throughout history.”

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Liverpool grew to vast prosperity as a commercial hub over the 18th and 19th centuries, including as the dominant British port in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The city controlled 40 percent of the slave trade in the late 18th century.

“Liverpool is often called the ‘slaving capital of the world’ because it was the largest slave-trading port city in Europe in the 18th century until the British slave trade’s legal abolition in 1807,” said Sarah Moody, a historian at the University of Bristol. The International Slavery Museum opened in 2007 at the Royal Albert Dock in the heart of the World Heritage site.

The city says that 40 percent of all global trade passed through its port in the early 19th century, and it retained its wealth and status into the early 20th century. The most celebrated of its waterside buildings, known as the “Three Graces,” were built in the years before World War I as offices for the port authorities, the Royal Liver insurance company and the Cunard shipping line.

After that, however, changes in shipping and the end of trans-Atlantic passenger liners placed the city’s economy on a long and increasingly steep downward slope. By the 1980s, Liverpool was a byword for urban poverty and decay, considered so intractable that government ministers debated leaving it to a process of “managed decline.”

Instead, the city became a test case for urban regeneration, and in recent decades, even as areas of severe deprivation have remained, has built a successful cultural and tourist economy. It’s driven not only by Liverpool’s maritime heritage and soccer fame but by the cosmopolitan city life the port helped inspire, including The Beatles, whose sound was based in part on U.S. rhythm-and-blues records that were easier to find around the docks than elsewhere in Britain.

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“We had a feeling this was coming,” said Sarah Doyle, a cabinet member at Liverpool City Council, who described sentiments of disappointment and frustration over UNESCO’s decision. She said the decision comes at a hard time for the city, which saw one of the highest increases in unemployment in the country during the first lockdown, and said that the UNESCO committee members had not visited Liverpool in a decade.

In a statement released on Twitter, the Liverpool region’s metro mayor, Steve Rotheram, said, “Places like Liverpool should not be faced with the binary choice between maintaining heritage status or regenerating left behind communities — and the wealth of jobs and opportunities that come with it.”

Peter Robins contributed reporting.





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