Village blames Smith for world heritage site snub

The people of Saltaire, a model Victorian community, say the Culture Secretary has let them down, reports Mark Rowe
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The Independent Online
OH NO I didn't, says Chris Smith. Oh yes you did, is the reply from the distinctive 19th-century village of Saltaire, annoyed that it has been excluded from consideration for the United Nations' list of World Heritage Sites.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport visited Saltaire, near Bradford, West Yorkshire, last March. Impressed, he left many locals with the distinct impression that he would put it on the United Kingdom's tentative list of sites for consideration by the UN's cultural arm, Unesco. But when the names of places aspiring to join the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal was announced two weeks ago, Saltaire was missing.

Mr Smith emphatically denied he had ever promised to include it. He said he had merely stated that the village, established by the mill owner Sir Titus Salt in 1853, was "clearly a candidate" for the list and that the ultimate decision was not his to make.

But when the Independent on Sunday contacted Mr Smith's department to clear up the matter, the mystery deepened. "It is the Secretary of State who has the final say," said a spokeswoman. "A list is drawn up by a committee of experts from English Heritage and the minister gives it his approval.

"Mr Smith did not give any sort of guarantees. He feels very strongly that he didn't say he would like to make sure Saltaire was on the tentative list. He simply praised the site for being of importance."

Some 3,000 people live in Saltaire, which is built on the banks of the river Aire and distinguished by cobbled streets, almshouses and period- piece public buildings. It receives almost a million visitors a year.

According to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Saltaire was on a "long" list of 120 sites but was excluded from the final 32 because it did not meet Unesco's stringent criteria. However, the department has now offered the villagers an olive branch. "The list is not definitive. During the consultation period, some names may fall off and others can be added," said the spokeswoman. "If somebody wants to submit a case why Saltaire meets the criteria, it would certainly be looked at."

Local MP Chris Leslie, Labour member for Shipley, intends to take up the offer. "I believe it meets the criteria in terms of modern history from the industrial period."

Saltaire's publicity officer, Maria Glot, said villagers had hoped it would be included on the list. "People were disappointed but we don't want any other site taken off the list for us. In terms of industrial model villages, Saltaire is unique. It was an incredible concept to come up with in the 19th century and really does deserve recognition."

The village was the realisation of a vision for Sir Titus, who served as mayor of Bradford and was its Liberal MP. His fortune was based on his being the first person in England to manufacture alpaca fabrics, after starting his career in textiles as a wool spinner. He believed his wealth charged him with a Christian duty to promote the material and moral well- being of his workers.

Saltaire has already achieved Europe-wide recognition, with awards including the Europa Nostra medal for regenerating a community, a similar honour from the British Urban Regeneration Association, and the highest accolade from the Civic Trust: the Boots Centre Vision award. The awards acknowledged the way the village has been rejuvenated since the late Jonathan Silver bought the five-storey mill 11 years ago. At the forefront of spinning technology in 1853, it is again humming with activity. It is home to a permanent exhibition of paintings by David Hockney, a 400- seat cafe, and 2,000 workers, mostly in electronics industries.

"We were disappointed not to be on the list. We've brought history back to life here and thought we had every chance," said Bradford Metropolitan District Council's Jack Womersley - who believes World Heritage Site status would have added pounds 2m a year in tourism revenue to the council's coffers.