Greenwich strikes out for global status

World Heritage Site: Unesco application focuses spotlight on how the ravages of time have decayed a once-majestic area
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

The Government today applies to the United Nations for the heart of Greenwich in south- east London to be designated a World Heritage Site.

If the application for the royal park and a clutch of historic and acclaimed buildings succeeds - and it is almost certain to - then Greenwich will join Stonehenge, the Tower of London, the pyramids, Taj Mahal and Auschwitz on the list of 470 world heritage sites.

All are judged by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organi- sation (Unesco) to have outstanding value or significance for all mankind. Greenwich is a contender because of the majesty of its baroque architecture, particularly that of Wren and Inigo Jones, its place in the history of a great maritime power, and its key role in developing navigation and time.

But the application, which was described as thrilling by Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, also shines a spotlight on the decay, poor setting and traffic problems that beset Greenwich and several of the other 16 British World Heritage Sites already designated.

"It's fair to describe Stonehenge and the Tower of London as national disgraces," said Philip Whitbourn, secretary of the British branch of the International Council of Monuments and Sites, which advises Unesco. Both are damaged by heavy traffic and ugly modern buildings are sited next to them.

He added: "Greenwich also has big problems. It is bedevilled by traffic and one hopes World Heritage Site will give a boost to the allocation of government funds needed to solve them."

Yesterday, two local conservation groups and the Civic Trust, which lobbies for better urban environments, wrote to John Major asking for the Government to provide funds - or allow lottery money - to divert the heavy traffic which goes through the centre of the proposed heritage site.

The A206, taking Kent and Essex traffic towards central London, cuts between Greenwich's two most important sets of 17th- and 18th-century buildings - The Royal Naval College and the Queen's House and National Maritime Museum. It also creates further pollution in an area visited by more than 2.5 million tourists each year. At present there is a six-month experimental lorry ban, which has brought some relief but diverted heavy vehicles on to other nearby roads.

The London Borough of Greenwich has proposed an ambitious bypass - a sunken tunnel one-mile long which would run along the side of the River Thames. But while nearby Lewisham and Bromley have recently had town-centre bypasses, Greenwich's plans have been shelved. It has no prospect of raising the pounds 110m it would cost and National Lottery funding has also been ruled out. Yesterday, Mrs Bottomley accepted there were traffic problems and no immediate prospect of a bypass.

Government advisers and pressure groups have other criticisms of Greenwich. There is only very limited public access to small parts of the Royal Naval College - two-and-a-half hours in the afternoon. The tenancy of the college is changing with the Navy moving out, and the University of Greenwich the most likely next occupant.

The concrete plaza surrounding the Cutty Sark tea clipper next door to it, where tourists emerge from the Thames foot tunnel or the boat landing pier, is bleak, shabby and unwelcoming. Greenwich council hopes to make major improvements next year.

Many of the lesser, government-owned buildings are shabby and peeling while they await new occupants. While public transport could be improved by a planned extension of the Docklands Light Railway from the north side of the Thames through Greenwich south to Lewisham, at the moment there is a dispute about whether there will be a station serving the core historic area itself.

There are also no firm plans on public transport links between the town centre and the huge millennium exhibition planned for 2000 on a derelict gasworks on the north Greenwich peninsula a mile away. Both Mrs Bottomley and the borough council said that becoming a World Heritage Site should help to solve those problems, although the title is a prestige one only - it attracts no extra funding for wealthy, developed nations.