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Development puts Bath's UN heritage status at risk

Unesco team visits today as Preservation Trust expresses fears over project

Bath's famed Georgian architecture and Roman ruins have made it the only British city to be classed as a World Heritage Site. But today officials from Bath will be crossing their fingers that they can continue to hold on to their coveted status as details of a large and controversial new development are outlined to Unesco inspectors.

A team from the United Nations arrived in the city on Wednesday for a three-day visit to determine whether Bath still deserves its listing beside the Great Barrier Reef and the Serengeti Desert. Concerns have been raised after planners gave permission for the Western Riverside development to go ahead, which involves 2,200 houses, shops, a school and a park being built next to the river. The area has been derelict for years and is dominated by a defunct 118ft (36m) high gasometer. There are worries that the new development, which includes nine-storey buildings, will dominate the city's skyline.

To be deemed a heritage site, a place has to be of "outstanding universal value"; although there are 27 places in the UK on the Unesco list, Bath is the only entire city included. Unesco says Bath's significance is its Roman remains and Georgian buildings which makes it "one of the most beautiful cities in Europe", reflecting "two great eras in human history: Roman and Georgian".

The Bath Preservation Trust meets the Unesco inspectors today. The trust says the design of the proposed development will include tall and bulky buildings inappropriate to Bath which will encroach on important countryside. The trust also wants more investment in protecting the World Heritage Site title by reinforcing guidelines on new planning applications and celebrating Georgian architecture.

Caroline Kay, the chief executive of the trust, said: "Bath Preservation Trust has welcomed the visit by Unesco inspectors, in the hope that this will draw greater attention to the challenges facing Bath as a World Heritage Site."

The city has been the location for countless television dramas and films including The Duchess, Remains of the Day and Vanity Fair.

The Unesco inspectors will write a report for the World Heritage Committee, which will meet in June to make a decision on whether Bath will retain its status. A spokesman for Unesco said: "It is extremely rare that a location gets struck off the World Heritage list – it has only happened once – so there may be more visits." A Unesco conference in Canada this year decided that the official visit to Bath was needed in the light of the plans to develop the Western Riverside.

Members of the Preservation Trust will address the Unesco officials and express their fears that the buildings in the Riverside scheme are too tall for the city, and that government plans to encourage more houses to be built there would be damaging.

But the Austrian architect and academic, Professor Manfred Wehdorn, who, with colleague Richard Veillon makes up the visiting team, said: "A city which lives needs new architecture and new spaces. New buildings and new possibilities are absolutely needed."

After visiting Bath, the Unesco team visits Edinburgh on a similar mission. Only parts of Edinburgh are on the Unesco list.