What do the Giant’s Causeway, Stonehenge and the Ironbridge Gorge have in common? They were among the first seven UK landmarks to become World Heritage Sites, shortly after Britain ratified the World Heritage Convention in 1984.
By 2008 another 20 sites in the UK and its overseas territories had earned their place alongside the Taj Mahal, the Egyptian pyramids and some 850 other global treasures that UNESCO considers to have outstanding, universal value.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has drawn up a list of ten criteria to determine whether nominated sites meet their exacting requirements, including six cultural criteria and four criteria related to the natural world.
Criteria for World Heritage Sites
Cultural sites qualify, for example, by representing a masterpiece of human creative genius, one reason for selecting Westminster Abbey and Orkney’s Neolithic settlements; or as a building that illustrates a significant stage of human history, part of the reason for selecting 22 of the UK’s 27 approved sites.
The fossil-strewn Dorset and East Devon Coast is the only World Heritage Site in mainland Britain that qualified only on the basis of one of the natural criteria, as representing a major stage of the earth’s history. St Kilda off Scotland’s north-western coast, Gough Island in the South Atlantic and Henderson Island in the South Pacific all qualified for their important natural habitats.
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is responsible for Britain’s nominations, usually of one site each year drawn from an official “Tentative List” previously lodged with the Paris-based UNESCO. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee of 21 member states decides whether to inscribe nominated sites as worthy of World Heritage status on the basis of inspection reports by international teams of scientists and other experts.
Heritage Site Inspections
Acceptance is not automatic. The DCMS’s nomination of Charles Darwin’s home at Down House in Bromley, near London, was declined in 2007 on the grounds that the site does not have “outstanding universal value”. The government plans to resubmit the proposal after a review of the criteria for sites representing scientific heritage.