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Lake District's Bid For World Heritage Status

The Lake District is a broad and verdant expanse of northern England in the neck of the British mainland, just below the head of Scotland and clinging to the eastern shore of the Irish Sea. At 885 square miles it is the largest of England’s National Parks and the subject of much recent attention from the park industry, because it is bidding to become the country’s latest World Heritage site.

Though England possesses more famous heritage sites than the Lake District--Stonehenge and the Tower of London are established locations--there is no doubt the Lake District has a similar degree of historic and aesthetic value as its more renowned cousins. Human settlement began there at the end of the last Ice Age (c.12,000 B.C.) and through the centuries its inhabitants have bequeathed a rich legacy of artefacts that include prehistoric encampments, Roman forts and medieval abbeys.

The natural beauty of the Lake District inspired local writers like William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter to greatness, and it helped to inspire the genesis of Britain’s conservation movement. If mythology is more your thing, by learned reckoning, the Lake District and its surrounding Cumbrian landscape is the most likely resting place of King Arthur, Excalibur and Camelot.

If At First You Don’t Succeed

So with all these advantages, is the Lake District’s bid for World Heritage status a sure thing? Cumbria County Council, the local government body with jurisdiction over the area, believes so. The Council’s Web site states confidently that it is “highly likely that the Lake District would be successful” in a heritage application. However, qualification is by no means certain and one attempt has already failed.

The first bid for World Heritage status, made in 1985, foundered because the Lake District failed a test of “natural integrity.” Little information is available to define “natural integrity” and how the Lake District failed to offer it, but one can only assume the area’s mix of natural and built environment did not happily sit within categories defined at that time for World Heritage qualification.

A change to the categorisation of World Heritage sites has boosted the Council’s hope of success a second time around. A new category named Cultural Landscape has been created specifically for environments such as the Lake District. The Council defines this category as aiming to “identify and sustain the diverse landscape results of the interaction between people and their environment,” a definition that provides the Lake District with a more suitable basis on which to make an application.

Improvements in organisation also indicate a greater chance of success for the second bid. The Council’s controlling interest provides the bid with a governing body that holds broader powers than the smaller-fry Lake District National Park Authority (LDNPA). The LDNPA headed the first attempt, but it is now content with coordinating a loose partnership of organisations that have special interests in the bid. The arrangement seems amicable, and all parties hope the pyramidal structure is the winning ticket this time.

Financing A World Heritage Bid

The cost of bidding for World Heritage status is surprisingly manageable. Cumbria County Council estimates $1 million for completing a successful bid, around two thirds of which will be paid for by the Council--and in turn, by the tax payer--and the remainder by partnership organisations. Of the Council’s expenditure, roughly two thirds will be spent on project management and the remaining third on outside consultants.

Though the outlay is manageable, it is still $1million that the Council may have spent elsewhere. So is an application for World Heritage status worth the money? According to County Archaeologist Richard Newman, the Council’s heritage expert, the answer is “yes.”

Mr. Newman expects World Heritage status to benefit the area’s economy in two ways: first, it will strengthen the Lake District’s case when it bids for limited government resources, and second, it will raise the area’s profile on the world stage, which in turn should lead to an increase in tourism from abroad. Mr. Newman stresses that World Heritage status is no gravy train to revenue improvement, but in times when competition for environmental funding grows ever fiercer, it can only help.

Protection Or Pickling?

Of course, a key incentive to obtain World Heritage status is the increased attention it brings to environmental protection. There are 830 sites with World Heritage status at time of writing, all of which are fragile in their own way. The list includes 31 sites considered to be in critical and imminent danger--in the United States, for example, the Florida Everglades is in peril from nearby farming and urban development.

Reducing one risk, though, can bring another. By protecting an environment from external dangers, one may turn it into a museum piece--preserved, certainly, but with the life sucked out. Members of the public have raised a concern on Cumbria County Council’s own Internet forums, that World Heritage status will deal a deathblow to the ever-changing communities that use the area.

Some have cited new speed restrictions placed on boats as representing the first nail in the Lake District’s coffin. The Lake District is England’s top water sports location, and much revenue will be lost if active use of the area declines. Were they alive today, the late Norman Buckley and Donald Campbell, who both set world water speed records on the area’s lakes, would no doubt protest the Council’s new 10 mph limit.

However, the Council has reassured inhabitants and visitors to the Lake District that their beloved landscape will be protected but not pickled. Restrictions enforced under the area’s National Park status are more rigorous than any that will come into place under World Heritage status1. The Council has publicly promised no increase in planning restrictions, arguing that to retain World Heritage status, “the Lake District must have a living and vibrant culture which continues to influence the development of its landscape,” and so “the Lake District cannot and will not be preserved in aspic.”

To safeguard its promise, the Lake District’s World Heritage commitments will not be managed by the Council alone. All of the partnership organizations currently involved in the bid will provide competing and cooperating voices for environment usage in years to come, some of which, importantly, are commercially minded.

How Do I Make My Site A World Heritage Site?

Now you know some of the pros and cons of a World Heritage bid. To whom do you make the application?

The only body that can put forward a bid for World Heritage status is your national government, and even it can only register two bids in one calendar year. It is up to interested individuals and groups--like yourself or Cumbria County Council--to create the best possible case for their cause. A watertight case will help win government approval, and it will assist the government in its own submission to the World Heritage site assessors.

The organisation with final say on whether your backyard merits World Heritage status is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). UNESCO’s purpose in the World Heritage movement is to identify and assist the management of places that possess “outstanding universal value from a natural, cultural, historic, artistic, or scientific viewpoint.” Any place can be considered, be it an individual monument, a building, a city, or an entire landscape--the Statue of Liberty has World Heritage status, and so has the Grand Canyon.

The World Heritage Committee of UNESCO meets once a year to reach a verdict on nominations put forward by interested countries. Though its headquarters is in Paris, UNESCO’s assessment committee can gather in any country--the last time UNESCO visited the United States was in 1992, in Santa Fe. This year’s session is scheduled for the end of June in Christchurch, New Zealand. So be quick, time is running out.

The Future Of The Lake District Bid

The U.K. government has decided upon its nominations for 2007--the Pontyscylte Aqueduct in Wales, and the Antonine Wall in Scotland--so the Lake District must wait until 2008 for its presentation to UNESCO. If you are interested in the outcome of the bid, I recommend checking Cumbria Council’s Web site: http://www.cumbria.gov.uk/, or better still, hop on a plane and cheer for a positive result with the locals. You will not regret your decision--the Lake District is beautiful, and well worth its nomination.

1 See the June 2006 issue for an examination of English National Park status.

Jamie Gletherow , born and raised in London, is our intrepid international correspondent (though he now lives stateside in Oberlin, Ohio) and is responsible for educating us on life across the pond. He can be reached via e-mail at Jamie.gletherow@gmail.com

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